Israeli Breast Cancer Patient Paddleboards Toward a Cure

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Karin Horen’s life changed 14 years ago, when she was 26. The doctors in Israel told her she had breast cancer and she endured a series of treatments and operations. The relatively early detection of the disease eventually allowed her to recover.

“All my friends had a good time, so I did as well,” she recalls. “I don’t remember it as the worst period of my life - I even went out with guys, and it didn’t disturb them. I started swimming, worked out in a gym and eventually earned a coaching diploma in Australia.”

Healthy and optimistic, she moved to New Zealand, where she began acting to increase awareness of the disease. “I fell in love with sport,” she recalls, and was exposed to the physical advantages it gives in terms of movement. In particular, she discovred paddle surfing, which literally entails standing on a surfboard and paddling on the water.

Women who have contracted breast cancer and undergone operations on the glands have a tremendous limitation in their movement. Beyond the research, treatment and finding drugs to counter the disease, it was particularly important to me to find a practical solution that will help rehabilitate the body tissues.

“In Israel, I wasn’t given these options,” Horen adds. “They sent me to psychotherapy, and that was it. Nowadays there are more possibilities, and I’ve realized how much stand-up paddleboarding can help rehabilitate movement, especially in the legs and shoulders.”

Horen began to compete in mass stand-up paddle boarding events, known as SUP, to raise money to encourage women (and men) to exercise regularly and escape the circle of atrophy.

She describes the sport of stand-up paddleboarding in spiritual terms. “It’s like you’re walking on water, can gaze at the fish and reefs, and enjoy the serenity,” she explains. “The SUP board gives you a special type of peace of mind. It’s stable and not threatening like a regular surfboard – there’s nothing to be scared of. You can even throw down an anchor and perform yoga on the water. The smell of the seawater, the surrounding seascape – it’s a bubble. Three or four times a week and you don’t need a gym to stay fit.”

Having organized events in New Zealand, Horen set out to make waves in her homeland. “Last year, we began to think about how to make the event more international,” she says. “My first thought was that I have to take it to Israel, even though the sport is in its infancy here. It was clear to me from the outset that such an event would have a special meaning for me and my friends, including Jon-Paul Tobin [who represented New Zealand in windsurfing at the London Olympic Games]. They suggested I talk to [Olympic gold medallist windsurfer] Gal Fridman to promote such an event in Israel. We made contact and together began to plan the event.”

A big shock

Then the unexpected happened. “I felt I needed a check-up, but the doctors told me it was nothing. I insisted on doing a biopsy, and two days later I got a call saying the cancer had returned. The second time is a big shock. 'What do you mean it’s back? I’m healthy, I’m an athlete with a great body, I eat only the best food' – but that doesn’t guarantee anything.”

Between the two bouts of cancer, Horen had met and married actor Manu Bennett (best known for his role as the undefeated gladiator Crixus in the television series “Spartacus,”) with whom she has three daughters with Maori names: Huia, Mokoia and Pania, who have to watch how their mother deals with the cancer.

“This year, when I was again diagnosed with cancer, it was clear to me that I will not stop,” Horen says defiantly. “I have three girls at home and must show them an example, to always have a smile on my lips and keep on going. Sometimes I didn’t feel well, but I managed to get through the chemotherapy, apart from a few reactions and allergies. Everyone is offering me support – so how can I sit at home and cry? It could always be worse.”

Horen got back on track and continued where she had left off, organizing the first SUP event on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. “It’s great to hear people talk about it in Hebrew, and now I’m even being interviewed about it in Hebrew,” she chuckles. “Before I came to Israel, I couldn’t sleep for a few nights. To get through the disease, then suddenly to board a plane and tell my colleague, Victoria Stuart, 'I am taking you to my home,' is a surreal experience. This week I surfed with Gal Fridman at Sdot Yam, ate a typical Israeli meal and felt the great beauty of sport that connects people.”

Last Saturday, in front of family and friends at Sdot Yam (near Caesarea), Horen launched the first Paddle For Hope SUP race in Israel. “It was a festival,” she says, describing the charity event. “I didn’t know there are so many surfers here - it was an experience to see all those macho Israeli men wearing pink! Five weeks after the operation, I entered the water with a feeling of conquest – you couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.”

Four-time world windsurfing champion Lee Korzits, who herself overcame a serious illness, won the race. “After the race Lee and I hugged, and it was a supreme feeling of female power,” says Horen.

She returns to New Zealand this week promising to continue the tradition next year. After three months of chemotherapy and before another series of treatments, Horen is again reinventing herself. “When I was really sick this year, I couldn’t even carry my surfboard. Other people carried it for me. But my adrenaline comes from doing things. I wake up in the morning and ask myself where all the strength comes from, because other people wonder how I do it. There is hope, even when the doctor sounds negative. There is still a future, and I draw strength from that.”

Beyond her personal battle, Horen tries to raise awareness on how to stand up to debilitating diseases. “I’m glad people are calling me for advice, because you stand alone against the disease. After all the treatments and operations, a woman goes home, takes off her clothes, looks at herself in the mirror and says, ‘Hey – they’ve taken something away from me.’ But there are other things from which she can derive motivation. I am always active. For the soul, there’s nothing worse than sitting at home depressed. It’s a difficult situation to get out of, but each moment brings on the next. After the first step, it becomes much easier.”

Know your body

When not paddleboarding, Horen devotes much of her time to lecturing about early diagnosis. “I didn’t expect the disease to return, but I was lucky because it was diagnosed relatively early. That’s my message - to know your body 100 percent, because only we know if anything’s wrong. Even if the doctor’s not sure, you have to take the tests and be in control of the situation. I was lucky. There are excellent doctors in New Zealand, and I had 14 years of silence - for which I am grateful.”

Paddleboarding toward a cure (illustrative).Credit: Dreamstime
Karin Horen in action.Credit: Alex Zozulya

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