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Rowing Through Health Hurdles: Laura Schwanger

Laura Schwanger shares her story about multiple sclerosis, breast cancer and the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games

September 18, 2012

I’ve always been an athlete. I love sports—track, softball, tennis—you name it, I liked to play it.  So in 1982 when I began to use a wheelchair while serving in the U.S. Army due to multiple sclerosis, I was devastated; I couldn’t imagine my life without sports.  

Luckily I discovered wheelchair sports. I successfully made the U.S. Paralympics team in 1988, 1992 and 1996, competed in track and field and medaled in all my events.  

By 2002 I had completed my schooling, earning a masters’ degree in counseling psychology from Immaculata University. Two years earlier, I had begun working for Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, an organization dedicated to helping veterans with spinal cord injuries or related disabilities. I had transitioned from being a highly competitive athlete to being a recreational one, participating in team sports like sled hockey and wheelchair softball.

Then, in March 2006, I went in for a routine mammogram. A few hours later my nurse practitioner called to say there was “something suspicious” and asked if I could come in for further testing. A biopsy was scheduled for the following week.

The night before the biopsy, I had dinner with friends. They were concerned, but I assured them that my family has no family history of cancer—we just have bad hearts. 

I was still clueless and convinced that it was calcium or a fatty cyst, so I was shocked when the pathologist called and told me it was cancer.

I had a lumpectomy within three weeks of that mammogram. Before this, I had no real knowledge of breast cancer, how it was treated and how it changed lives. I learned I had estrogen receptor- and progesterone receptor-positive breast cancer. I was 46 years old, and this diagnosis put me in the “high risk for recurrence” category. I received four cycles of chemotherapy, seven weeks of radiation and five years of tamoxifen.

After completing chemotherapy and radiation, my body was weaker than ever. I had no strength, no endurance, no stamina—nothing. Shortly before radiation therapy ended, I found a new 10-week exercise program through Philadelphia’s Wellness Community for women within two years of breast cancer treatment. I called to apply and was told I’d need to come in for an interview. We met once a week for two hours and 50 minutes of aerobics and a one-hour information and education session. The program was great—I learned a lot, met great women and began my physical recovery.

From here I was invited by the Philadelphia Rowing Program for the Disabled to train twice a week throughout the winter on indoor rowing machines. I started in December 2006, and it was probably March 2007 before I could do the same workout as the other participants. But my strength and stamina were improving, so I kept at it.

In April 2007, our coach, Karen Lewis, who also coaches the U.S. National Adaptive Rowing team, asked if I’d like to row on the water. I was determined to be an arms and shoulders rower based on my disability, so I rowed in a double four times to learn technique before she put me in a single scull. That June, I competed in and won the U.S. National Adaptive Trials for Women’s Arms-only Single Scull and went to the 2007 World Rowing Championships in Munich, Germany. I came in sixth, but more importantly, I qualified the boat for participation in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

I trained over the winter, traveling to places where I could row on the water to supplement workouts on the indoor rower and to work on technique. In Beijing, I came in third. I was 49 years old—the oldest woman on the U.S. team—and I beat women half my age and won a bronze medal two years after my breast cancer diagnosis!

I had won medals at previous Paralympics, but none meant more than this bronze medal. I not only beat cancer and medaled in a new sport, but I also realized my life was not defined by cancer. For 18 months my life revolved around treatments, recovery and doctor appointments. My doctors took very good care of me. Rowing at this level took care of my psyche. I read rowing books, not only cancer books. I talked about my aspirations and going to China, not about the devastating “Big C.” I knew at this point that I was truly a “survivor.”

After two life-altering diagnoses—MS and breast cancer—I refuse to sit around and wait for something else to happen, so I try to live each day to the fullest.  I don’t want to ever say “I wish I would have” or look at my life with regret, so I try new things all the time. My motto is, “Life is not a spectator sport, so don’t let it pass me by!”

Would you like to motivate and inspire others by sharing how breast cancer has touched your life? Share your story.