Last year, Chestelle Samford was training for a rowing marathon to take place on the Cain River in Louisiana. But her training was interrupted. On November 3, Dr. Ellen Blair Smith, a gynecologic oncologist, with Dr. Karen Swenson assisting, operated on Chestelle Samford to debulk a malignant, stage III ovarian tumor. A completely different type of marathon lay before her.
This year, August 12 – 14, Samford, who just turned 70, won a gold medal and two silvers at the US Rowing Masters National Championship in Oklahoma City. She was recently granted “No Evidence of Disease” status, putting her ovarian cancer behind her, but she’s much more animated talking about the Masters Nationals.
“All of our times were better this year than last year,” she said. She competed in three different “quads,” or four-person boats. One was a “women’s lightweight quad” where each member of the quad had to weigh less than 130 pounds, one was an “open” quad with members from different clubs, and one was a “club” quad with members from her same club.
Samford rows three times a week. After her surgery last year and the start of a five-month chemotherapy course, she stopped rowing…but not for long. She started walking for exercise in December and got back into her boat in January to start rowing again. By the time her chemo course ended, she had already begun training for the Masters Nationals.
Already fit when the cancer was diagnosed, she and her physicians credit Samford’s physical condition for her ability to tolerate the surgery and the treatment as well as she did—especially compared to other patients in her age group.
“I think [her fitness] absolutely helped,” said Smith. Swenson, who rows in the same club as Samford, agreed. “Chestelle’s the real star,” she said. But Samford plays down her ordeal.
“Chemo was a piece of cake compared to what it used to be and compared to what I expected,” she said. She credits a new drug for her complete lack of nausea during chemotherapy. Samford also never got depressed. “Exercise played a part,” she said. “Of course, I’m a real Pollyanna in terms of positive attitude. But with my illness, I had lots of support from friends and family. I didn’t have time to get down about it.”
Samford continues to stay busy with her regular activities, including two book clubs, a writing group, and her family. Her granddaughter, Stella, 13, is rowing five days a week now as well.
“A couple of weeks ago, two of my quad friends did a row with Stella and me,” she beams. “Stella loves it.”
Fully back to her regimen, Samford rows three days a week, does a weekly core class with weights and a circuit, and bikes. She is now training for the Pumpkinhead Regatta, a 5K on Lady Bird Lake scheduled for October 29.
For more information on early warning signs of ovarian cancer click here