'Ladies who Launch' helps Cork women back to exercise during and after cancer

Ladies who Launch is a new initiative supporting women who had or have breast cancer to get back to exercise, writes CHRIS DUNNE
'Ladies who Launch' helps Cork women back to exercise during and after cancer

Ladies who Launched at an event at Dock Beach for women with breast cancer. Pictured were Lorna O'Connor, course director giving a thumbs up for the course start. Picture Denis Boyle

LADIES who Launch is an original concept initiated by Amy Walsh, who is a Chartered Physiotherapist with Max Physio in Clonakilty, who had the idea when two friends of hers were diagnosed with breast cancer.

“A friend was diagnosed with breast cancer which required surgery and reconstruction of the breast,” says Amy.

“A side effect of the surgery was a loss in shoulder strength. Kayaking is a proven fun method of recovering lost agility in the upper body. However, there was no service in place for her to access kayaking or instructors to show the techniques required to recover the strength that she had lost.

“She told me her story so I organised a sit on top kayak and now she has progressed to kayaking all over the west coast of Ireland in her own sea kayak!

“I saw her need and went about organising a safe route to kayaking. Once a person builds up their personal confidence, anything is possible.”

Ladies who Launched at the Dock Beach. Pictured were Lorna O'Connor, course director with Jon Hynes and Amy Walsh and Luke Hennessy, Anna O'Keeffe and Jasmin Salami. Picture Denis Boyle
Ladies who Launched at the Dock Beach. Pictured were Lorna O'Connor, course director with Jon Hynes and Amy Walsh and Luke Hennessy, Anna O'Keeffe and Jasmin Salami. Picture Denis Boyle

Tracie encouraged another friend to go kayaking.

“During a particularly difficult period of time for another friend who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I promised her that when it was all over, I would do organise a night kayaking trip with the West Cork Kayaking Club. This was something special for her to aim at, a date in the calendar, and when she completed her treatment we did exactly what I had promised and it was a celebration of moving forward. It was a very emotional night,” says Amy.

There are many benefits of regular exercise with improved outcomes for patients after cancer.

Amy said: “Medical research clearly links regular exercise with improved outcomes for patients after treatment for cancer. 

"It benefits in a number of ways including a reduction in fatigue, improved mental health, memory retention, improved concentration and improved attention span.

“Kayaking as a form of exercise during or post cancer treatment also improves upper body strength, balance, mobility around chest and shoulders, combined with cardiovascular fitness and endurance.

“Initially, I developed a Ladies who Launch kayaking programme specifically for women who have had or are living with a cancer diagnosis,” says Amy.

“Supported by the volunteers at West Cork Kayaking Club, we ran an introductory four week program which was oversubscribed. I did not want to turn anyone away so I reached out to Jon Hynes of Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre for support. Kinsale came on board and we were able to accommodate 32 ladies across both organisations. All of the ladies who signed up participated for the four sessions and a majority have continued and progressed on with their kayaking journey, some even earning certificates for proficiency. It was a huge success.”

Returning to exercise after a cancer diagnosis can be tricky.

“Exercise and sport after a cancer diagnosis / treatment is difficult to figure out. People can feel overwhelmed, you know you should exercise but do not necessarily know how to go about it,” says Amy.

“ Ladies who Launch provides that safe space to allow people to return to something that is fun to do but also its exercise and it is designed so that each individual goes at their own pace.

Lorna O'Connor, course director with Amy Walsh and Anna O'Keeffe. Picture Denis Boyle
Lorna O'Connor, course director with Amy Walsh and Anna O'Keeffe. Picture Denis Boyle

“We meet women who want to help themselves and we are there to help them get where they want to go!”

Emer Carton and Canoeing Ireland developed a ‘Bridge the Gap’ initiative to support and develop more opportunities for women to engage in paddle sports.

“Anna O’Keefe, Lorna O’Connor and I are ‘Bridge the Gap’ ambassadors who promote, develop and support inclusive opportunities for women. The project is supported by ‘paddle-able’ funding. This funding enabled the purchase of equipment that allows us to adapt kayaks to meet the physical needs of each participant.

“In addition, the funding pays for participants’ annual membership of West Cork Kayak Club.”

How do the ladies sign up for the programme?

“The ladies register for the programme, then complete a screening programme to identify any issues,” says Amy.

“This allows us to adapt the programme and kayak to suit each person as an individual. We offer dates in both the Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre and West Cork Kayaking Club.

“This coming April / May session is fully booked but there will be more advertised in due course.”

Lorna O’Connor and Amy Walsh are leading the next Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre program and Amy Walsh and Anna O’Keefe are leading the West Cork Kayaking Club program.

Amy added: “In addition, West Cork Kayaking Club volunteers will be offering a safe supported walking group and exercise sessions for ladies who may not want to dip their toes into the world of kayaking at this particular moment in time. It is going to be a busy summer!”

The ladies who launch are going places.

“Several of the ladies who launched in 2021 are starting their kayaking level 2 skills training in Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre and preparing for a weekend away in Schull, sea kayaking and camping on a remote island! Congratulations to those ladies and I am sure they will have some stories to tell following this latest adventure,” says Amy.

Returning to exercise after a cancer diagnosis is important.

“Medical research has overwhelmingly determined that it is beneficial to be active during and post cancer treatment. 

"The most important thing is to find something you like, start slowly and increase at your own pace. Your target is 150 minutes a week - about 20 minutes of exercise a day. The best time to start is now and you are in control of that decision.”

Amy loves the outdoors.

“My love of the outdoors and water sports led me to the West Cork Kayak Club. It is a totally voluntary community orientated organisation based in Tragumna, Skibbereen. It was founded 10 years ago by a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to make kayaking affordable and accessible to all who wished to participate.

“Through a series of grants the club has been able to purchase boats, paddles, lifejackets, helmets, and due to the kindness of the owners of the Skibbereen Eagle pub in Tragumna, a small base has been established in the pub’s car park adjacent to the sea.

“The club provides rescue and marshalling support to local charity sporting events such as the Skibbereen Charity Adventure Race (SCAR), local triathlons, Baltimore Wet Weekend as well as offering kayaking outings to local clubs such as the scouts.

“I joined the club in 2015 and have met the most amazing selfless people from all walks of life and have had wonderful adventures all around the stunning coast of Cork and beyond."

What next for Amy?

“My next target is to engage with men,” says Amy.

“Two thirds of active men fail to return to sport following a cancer diagnosis / treatment. This is a very high number, especially as the effect of sedentary activity over a prolonged period leads to health issues. To address this, I am preparing a similar program to Ladies who Launch for men called ‘Steel Paddlers’.

“Once this program is launched, I would encourage the women in the lives of men who might find themselves in the situation of a cancer diagnosis / treatment to encourage their men to take the leap of faith and give it a go.

“In the meantime, Arc House in Cork are running a male exercise class called ‘Get Active after Cancer’ and Arc House in Bantry will be running one in September. Women should encourage men to go.”

Tracie Spriggs was encouraged to sign up for Ladies who Launch. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018 and is a member of the Cork Dragons boat club.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” says Tracie. “It was a huge shock at the time but I had my treatment and came out the other end healthy and alive. I needed to focus on it and go with the plan. The Dragons were out of the water during Covid and a fellow dragon put up a message in our group about Ladies who Launch. There were limited spaces due to Covid, but I got my place for the four week programme.

“It was a great way to introduce women to water sports who have had cancer or who are going through cancer. Paddling is good for the chest muscles. I loved being out on the water; it gave me a huge sense of achievement,” says Tracie.

“Jon Hynes, of the Kinsale Outdoor Education Centre, set up another program for us dragons in May and then in June. We were presented with certs from canoeing Ireland, which was great.”

She loved the experience.

“The atmosphere out on the water is special and everyone is in good spirits, laughing and giggling,” says Tracie.

“Everyone is so supportive. For two hours out on the water the sense of accomplishment in our own kayak is special and very empowering. We all feel part of a team and we are from all backgrounds. Gaining skills; we can show others. It is all very enjoyable.” Tracie must be very fit from her water sports?

“I feel great,” she says.

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