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Cancer survivors on rowing team discover healing in Flushing Bay

Donna Wilson (r.) keeps a dragon boat full of volunteers rowing in unison during an event at the World's Fair Marina. Photo by Joe Anuta
TimesLedger Newspapers

The members of an all-women’s rowing team who gathered at the World’s Fair Marina Saturday have already been through the fight of their lives, but winning the battle against cancer does not make tidying up Flushing Bay any easier.

The Empire Dragon Boat Team, made up entirely of breast cancer survivors, hosted a cleanup where volunteers pulled shopping carts, syringes, old tires and even an engine block out of the waters where they practice racing once a week.

The idea for the cleanup was started by Jennifer Merendino, who co-founded the team along with a nurse from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan, where the Ohio native turned New Yorker received treatment after her diagnosis with breast cancer in 2008.

But Merendino was not there Saturday.

Despite the mental and physical strength she gained from racing, her cancer metastasized. The team’s ranks have steadily grown to 50 women since its inception, but in December they shrank by one.

Now the cleanup is in Meredino’s honor, according to her husband Angelo.

“It’s amazing to see everyone out here,” he said. “She would be so proud.”

Merendino conceived of the idea when she was going through chemo and physical therapy. Her arms were weak and racked by pain, but she happened to see a video of another team of cancer survivors.

Dragon boat teams consist of rowers who sit side by side and use paddles, as opposed to the attached oars of a crew team, to propel a slender craft through the water. The boats have a drummer in front to keep the time and a coach in back and are proceeded by the head of a dragon. The sport comes from a traditional Chinese holiday, but has gained widespread popularity.

Merendino was struck by the teamwork involved, all the women paddling in unison through the water. Friends and family can track her inspiration because her thoughts are preserved in writing.

In fact, her struggle with the disease was extensively documented by her husband.

Five months after they married, Merendino was diagnosed and Angelo began taking photos to document the slow deterioration of his wife at the website mywifesfightwithbreastcancer.com, which he designed.

Some of the earlier photos show an almost defiant woman shaving her head in the mirror, but the images also hint at the grim realities of chemotherapy — hailing a cab with a cane, the sidelong looks as a bald woman strolls past a sidewalk cafe. Eventually the scenery is confined to hospitals.

But her struggle did not stop her teammates from moving forward.

Donna Wilson, Merendino’s nurse and co-founder of the group, took the front seat in one of the team’s boats and spent the day barking orders at young Boy Scouts and volunteers in order to whip them into shape while the rowers looked on.

Alex Herzan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009 and cannot say exactly why she decided to try out dragon boat racing, since she is not a fan of swimming, water or boats.

“I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ Flushing Bay at 8 a.m. on Saturday?” Herzan recalled. “I still say to myself in the middle of paddling, ‘Why am I doing this?’”

But the support and camaraderie of the other women who shared her struggle gives her strength, she said.

And now is no time to let down her guard.

“It’s been two years since chemo,” she said. “They say if you get to five years, you have a really good chance.”

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at januta@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4566.

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