It may be the most beautiful summer day in Nova Scotia or the harshest winter day; If there are waves, Amber Spurrell will surf.
Even while you’ve had six rounds of chemotherapy.
“It allowed me to get into the ocean not to have cancer for a few minutes and just be,” says Spurell, 42, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.
At 27, Spurell met her biological mother for the first time and learned that her family had a history of breast cancer.
Spurell had annual mammograms throughout her 30s, but her annual mammogram was canceled in 2020 due to the pandemic. On June 21, 2021, a Dartmouth woman learned that she had stage 2 breast cancer.
She had her mastectomy 15 days later – and found out she wouldn’t be able to lie on a surfboard for weeks.
“My main concern was how am I going to surf without my breasts?” she says.
All Spurell wanted was to get back into the water. It didn’t take long for her to get back on her feet.
She had to make adjustments like surfing using foam in her wetsuit to protect her chest, but just 33 days after the surgery, Spurell was back gliding through the waves along Nova Scotia’s east coast.
“I needed to be detained,” she says. “And the ocean did it for me.”
Surfing as a form of healing
Using nature – specifically water – as a form of therapy is not a new idea.
There are more than 50 surf therapy programs around the world that use surfing to enhance well-being, according to International Surf Therapy, a Los Angeles-based research and advocacy group.
Nova Scotia is getting its own show this summer.
Guide therapist Shelby Miller plans to release Sea Clear Therapeutics next month after he was inspired by a documentary about surfing as an alternative form of therapy for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Surf therapy is really cool because it’s not a lot of talking and a lot of surfing,” Miller says. “It’s great for people who find it difficult to go to therapy and talk about their problems and things they’ve been through.”
She says surfing can help people enter what’s known as a brain flow state, when an individual is completely absorbed in an activity.
“It takes you out of what you’re experiencing and gets you into the surfing experience,” she says.
Spurell considered surfing to be her personal form of therapy because she was fighting cancer. There were times when she didn’t have the energy to paddle in the waves or show up.
But watching the waves crash, inhaling the salty air of the beach, and feeling the splash of cold water on her face was the distraction she needed.
“I needed to suffer more than I needed to be at home on the couch,” she says. “I just wanted to be a pusher of the elements. They push me.”
Spurell’s Road to Healing
Sporyl is currently in immunotherapy. She will receive treatment every three weeks until November, followed by hormone therapy for the next five years. She feels her muscles back, but she still has heart fatigue and brain fog.
She will continue to use surfing to feel herself again.
“Cancer is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, but the elements I’ve encountered while surfing has got me through it,” she says.
“It still heals me.”