"In the outside world we feel like the odd ones out, but when we get on the boat we can be ourselves, we don’t have to be people we’re not."

When she was 11, Mary Isherwood, from South Wales, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. For the next three-and-a-half years she underwent intensive treatment, spending long periods in hospital; she missed school, her friends moved on, she was alive but now in her mid-teens, her life was unrecognisable.

Rowan Todd has a similar story. Now 13, she was only three when she was diagnosed with an Optic Pathway Glioma - a type of brain tumour. In seven years she had four-and-a-half years of chemotherapy and is now almost completely blind. She felt a “kind of stigma around me” as she went back to school and tried to reintegrate back into the life she used to know.

Like Rowan and Mary, for many young people in recovery just picking up where they left off before their diagnosis isn’t possible. But since 2016, a partnership between the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and Harlow-based CanalAbility has helped young people rediscover their confidence through canal boating.

Mary, 16, joined her first trip in November. She couldn't believe the impact just one week on a canal boat had. She said: "You don’t meet people in the same situation as you every day but, on this trip, we feel like normal people. These are people who understand how I feel, I understand how they feel and we can share it.

"You have to go through the experience to know what it feels like, you can’t assume. I feel so much more confident, that I can take the tumour and rule it. I’m taking my life back.”

 

A more sedate way of life

The Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust uses sailing and outdoor adventure to support, empower and inspire young people aged 8-24 in embracing their future with optimism after cancer.

By partnering with CanalAbility, situated on the Hertfordshire/Essex border, access to boating has been widened to young people with more severe mobility issues, or those who don’t yet have the confidence to join a Trust sailing trip. The young people enjoy the all the same benefits of a Trust trip - of being on a boat with others who have been through similar things - but in a smaller group with more one-to-one support.

In November, Mary and Rowan were among four young people, who all had treatment for brain tumours, that enjoyed five days cruising the rivers Stort and Lee, passing through the beautiful Rye Meads Nature Reserve, on CanalAbility’s specially-adapted, wheelchair friendly 67ft canal boat, Red Watch. 

As well as baking and getting involved in all the different aspects of canal boating, the young people celebrated Halloween by making hats and carving pumpkins, although their creations met a messy end getting squashed on a low bridge! They also undertook day-to-day tasks they might not ordinarily do themselves, such as getting dressed, showering and cooking, promoting independence many of them will have lost during treatment.

The Trust's trip lead, Dan Taylor, explains: "A canal boat feels slightly more contained and stable than a yacht and there's only two directions you can go. But the trip is still active, including the young people doing the locks, winding up the paddles and pushing open the lock gates.

"They helm the boat for periods of time, you haven't got the wind so you've got to concentrate all the time on where you're going and what you're doing, and they do line work as well, helping the boat manoeuvre away from the side. Even chilling out on the foredeck is all part of the experience. 

"The overriding thing that gets said about this trip is the young people love it because it goes at their pace. Sailing has to go at the pace of the wind and the tide and before it gets dark, but on this trip we can say 'Do we have to be there by then?' Do we have to set off at this time?' It's more relaxed and that works."

Friends for life

But for all the boating benefits that come from the trip, its real impact endures way beyond the towpaths. Friendships are forged for life in an environment where judgement is not a factor.

Rowan said: “I missed a lot of school and it was hard when I’d spend break time looking for my friends and they wouldn’t come and hang out with me. My first trip made me feel like I wasn't the only one; knowing there are other people who’ve been through similar or the same things as you is really reassuring. Joining the trips has helped me make friends outside of school.”

"The people I met on the trip are inspiring and the most amazing people ever," Mary concludes.

Their futures could always be bright. Now they believe it themselves.