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Life After Diagnosis: Richmond, BC’s Shelley Behr Crews Up with Abreast in a Boat Initiative

Breast cancer is one of the most traumatic and life-changing experiences a woman can have. Fortunately, medical science has been making giant leaps forward over the past few decades with research, treatment and care. One of the things that many breast cancer survivors value greatly is the opportunity to connect with each other, bond, share their stories, and support each other following treatment or surgery.

Shelley Behr, a counsellor and social worker whose longtime practice is based in Richmond, BC, is one of those women. After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, then treatment, she began to look for ways to connect with other women who had had similar experiences.

By day, Shelley works in the Richmond Counselling Centre providing professional counselling services to individuals, couples, families and children experiencing life difficulties, personal growth or seeking support during times of conflict and change.

On weekends, she can often be found on the river as a member of Abreast In A Boat’s dragon boat team. Abreast in A Boat is a registered charitable organization founded in 1996 by Dr. Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and an exercise physiologist who also serves as a physician for Canada’s national canoe team. Dr. McKenzie, a professor of kinesiology and director of the Division of Sports Medicine at the University of British Columbia established Abreast in A Boat to demonstrate that those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer can live full, active and healthy lives.

“I’ve been involved with this organization for the past six years,” says Shelley. “I’m one of a group of women from Vancouver and the surrounding area who have had a breast cancer diagnosis.”

The Abreast in A Boat website describes its participants as “living symbols of hope and a vivid demonstration that there is life after diagnosis.” While many people who have experienced medical challenges turn to various athletic endeavors in the wake of a setback, Shelley and her teammates embrace the strenuous demands of dragon boat paddling.

“We have learned that we can push the limits of our stamina and endurance, and have fun doing it,” says Shelley.

But she’s also quick to note that her involvement isn’t only about getting out on the water with her friends for an aggressive workout.

Abreast In A Boat is also highly committed to furthering breast cancer awareness and supporting breast cancer research, even as its members congregate at a variety of paddling venues in the Vancouver area.

“We greatly enjoy paddling together,” says Shelley. Abreast in A Boat also affords us the opportunity to support each other and learn about each other’s experiences. There’s also a lot of laughter, as we’ve become friends. And ultimately, we break the silence of cancer and encourage others to join us in the boat.”

Like many people, Shelley Behr didn’t expect to get a breast cancer diagnosis. A member of the BC College of Social workers who holds a M.S.W. degree, Shelley has worked as a counsellor both in private practice and in an agency for the past 24 years.

“As a counsellor,” she says, “I always strive to be compassionate and understanding with each client. That’s also what I expected and received as a patient following my diagnosis. It’s an incredibly scary moment for any woman when she’s sitting in her doctor’s exam room and hears the words ‘breast cancer. Fortunately, the medical team who treated me were absolute professionals who helped me get through an unusually difficult time in my life.”

In her practice, Shelley is both trained and experienced when it comes to identifying the individual nature of each client’s needs. Her clients come to her with a variety of issues ranging from anxiety, depression and phobias to relationship issues, adolescent/child issues, separation, divorce, grief, loss, and life transitions.

For her, it’s a full plate. And when she’s not maintaining office hours she acts as a collaborative divorce coach and child specialist in the process related to divorce and litigation as a member of the Collaborative Divorce Association of Vancouver.

Shelley Behr has always been interested in fitness. When she’s not rowing the dragon boat as a member of the Abreast in A Boat team, she enjoys biking. A favorite non-athletic pursuit is playing mah jong.

Earlier this year, Dr. McKenzie and four members of the dragon boat team traveled to Fiji to participate in outreach activities. Shelley didn’t join in for that trip, but she takes part in as many activities as possible and plans to consider doing so in the weeks, months and years ahead.

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