One Woman’s Fight with Cancer…Using a Canoe Paddle

Lifelong paddler, Paula McGarvey, hasn’t let cancer stop her from getting on the water. In fact, paddling has helped her heal and stay focused throughout her treatment…

Paula McGarvey
Paula, ready for her Allagash adventure

When we first learned about Paula through a Facebook post by her close friend, Alison Taylor (the daughter of Bruce and Deb Arnold, whom you’ll read about shortly), we wanted to learn more of her story.

Paula has graciously allowed us to share with you how determination, a love for adventure, and paddling has helped in her fight with cancer.

BB: Have you always loved paddling?

PAULA: My first time in a canoe was at a Girl Scout summer camp around 5th grade. I distinctly remember learning the paddle strokes and the resultant sensation of the canoe moving almost silently forward through the water like a knife through butter.

It was magical.

I didn't get back into a canoe for a few more years, when I signed up for a church camp the summer after 8th grade.

The canoe trip leaders were a young couple, Bruce and Deb Arnold. We headed off to the North Maine Woods to canoe the West Branch of the Penobscot River and Lake Chesuncook.

That trip cemented the initial baptism into the sport and was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with paddling.

I returned to the North Maine Woods dozens of times as paddler, camp counselor, trip leader and recreator, visiting the West Branch, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Rangely Lakes and Dead River.

Under the guidance of the Arnolds and Deb's dad, Gordon Calverley, I also became active in the Worcester (Mass.) Appalachian Mountain Club. That broadened my white water paddling horizons to include rivers in most of New England, and perfected my paddling skills to include Class IV solo paddling.

I moved to Montana in 1989. There I paddled local rivers including retracing a portion of the Lewis and Clark trail on the Beaverhead and Jefferson Rivers.

After I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 I've continued to paddle as my health has allowed, including river trips on the Blackfoot River, several trips on the Missouri River Breaks in Montana and a float trip on the Salmon River in Idaho.

I returned to the West Branch of the Penobscot in 2013 with my kids after my second battle with cancer in 2011.

My most recent trip was the Allagash with my kids, Jess and Dan Peters, and the Arnold clan. That was in August 2017 after a diagnosis of Stage IV metastatic breast cancer in May of 2016.

Canoeing group
Paula with her kids and the Arnold clan, August 2017

BB: Why paddling? What's healing about it? Why do you love it?

PAULA: Through the years I've found a certain serenity in paddling a canoe that remains constant through all of life's challenges.

It's not just the calming beauty of nature that draws me back. I love the meditative rhythm of the paddle stroke countered by the effortless moments of gliding forward through the water. It brings a sense of balance and focus.

BB: Your family and friends gave you a special canoe paddle from Bending Branches. How meaningful was that?

PAULA: Setting a goal to paddle the Allagash with my kids and the Arnolds helped keep me focused and positive during 22 rounds of chemotherapy treatment. It motivated me to get back in shape when the cancer receded.

My 5-month remission ended last July. My oncologist decided to try a new targeted, daily oral therapy. My first response was, "I know you just told me my cancer has come back, but can I still go in my canoe trip next month?” He smiled and nodded with approval.

The trip and being with my kids and the Arnold family on the Allagash River were on my bucket list. But the gift of the commemorative Bending Branches paddle they presented me with was a heartwarming surprise. It was a gesture of love and support that moved me to tears.

It represents our shared love of paddling and a 40+ year friendship forged on the rivers and lakes of the North Maine Woods.

Paula McGarvey with her Bending Branches canoe paddle
Paula with her custom Bending Branches paddle

BB: What has it meant to you to be able to accomplish these kinds of milestones (like paddling the Allagash) while fighting cancer?

PAULA: Fighting cancer for the last decade has not been easy. It's especially hard to keep getting up after being knocked down so many times.

I attribute a lot of my stamina and determination to lessons learned while paddling. You set goals. You push yourself to conquer rapids and trudge on through back-breaking portages. You learn to focus on the peace that comes with the quiet pools between the rapids…on the freedom you feel as you pack up your boat and shove off the shore onto a tranquil lake and hear a loon call.

Paddling has become my personal metaphor for life. Planning my next trip is my hope for the future.

canoeing the Allagash
On the Allagash River

BB: Where do you plan to paddle next?

PAULA: I just had a CT scan showing the cancer has drastically receded since the recurrence last July, thanks to the targeted therapy.

This is nothing short of miraculous.

I believe our attitude in facing adversity can affect outcome. Thinking positively and paddling forward isn't a cure-all, but it definitely helps.

As for the future, due to low water last August, our Allagash trip ended 12 miles early. I'd like to go back to Maine next summer and do the last section of the waterway and take a selfie at the foot of Allagash Falls.

(All photos courtesy of the Arnold Family)

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