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Waves of life

Jennifer Fanning, city of Atascadero recreation supervisor and cancer survivor, surfing her first wave at the Women’s Cancer Survivor Summit held at Pismo Beach. Photo by Adrian Martino

After surfing the first waves of her life, Jennifer Fanning came out of the water, sat on the sand, outlined a shy smile, and took a deep breath.

“I was diagnosed at 40 years old with breast cancer in 2016 and then I thought I was going to die because when you have cancer you die, and I had to tell my children,” Fanning said.

Fanning is one of the women participating in the first Women’s Cancer Survivor Summit, held on Oct. 10, on the sands of Pismo Beach. The event is organized by the Surfing for Hope Foundation, a local non-profit organization created by surfer and cancer survivor “Helmet” Bob Voglin, in partnership with his oncologist Dr. Tom Spillane and his wife Dr. Karen Allen. 

“Helmet” Bob Voglin, Dr. Karen Allen and Dr. Tom Spillane. Photo by Adrian Martino

Due to the use of blood thinner medication for over 20 years, Bob was advised by his cardiologist to protect his head and wear a helmet every time he surfs. This habit earned Bob the nickname, “Helmet.”

“There is so much power in the ocean,” Voglin said.  “Surfing goes beyond any sport, it is just a lifestyle. It’s remarkable.” 

The Surfing for Hope Foundation was created to help ease the difficulty of cancer through the healing powers of surfing and ocean life. The Women’s Cancer Survivor Summit is a unique event open to women currently undergoing treatment who have completed cancer treatment, as well as oncology health care providers. This special program is a day of yoga, beginner surf instructions, and a gourmet luncheon provided free of charge.

“To be able to be out here in this big, huge circle of thrivers, you know we are much more than survivors, we are thrivers,” said Tammy Sonnabend, a yoga instructor and cancer survivor. “To see them moving and breathing with me and teach them just a little of what had helped me to continue to heal. I am just so full of gratitude in my heart to be able to be part of this.”

Women cancer survivors attending a yoga class at Pismo Beach. Photo by Adrian Martino

Many of these women have never surfed before. However, this did not stop them from jumping into the sea, overcoming beginner’s difficulties, and getting up on the board for the first time.

“It was a good thing to try and see that it was not that scary,” said Kim Strom, a writer, photographer, and cancer survivor. “And obviously it’s kind of related to your cancer story and maybe it is not that scary.” 

Kim Strom. Photo by Adrian Martino

Stu Silvani is the owner of Shell Beach Surf Shop, and is responsible for the surf lessons. For him, surfing and battling cancer have a lot in common.

“I’m so impressed with their survivor’s instincts,” Silvani said.  “They just got to keep doing it. You got to keep getting up everyday and fight the battle, which is very much like surfing, you got to keep going and not stopping until you get through it.”  

In nine years, Surfing for Hope Foundation has raised almost $500,000 to support the Hearst Cancer Resource Center, through sharing their passion for surfing and the ocean lifestyle.  

“People can get together with like people and share their experiences, their life or whatever they want, all in a format of this, the glory of our beaches,” Voglin said. “We are so amazingly fortunate.” 

Women cancer survivors taking a beginner surf class at Pismo Beach. Photo by Adrian Martino

According to the National Cancer Institute, in 2020 an estimated 1,806,590 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and 606,520 people will die from the disease.

“You don’t have to stop living just because you are in treatment,” Strom said. “There are ways to still love every single day, even the hard ones, so don’t give up.”