PEORIA — Breast cancer survivors may bring rowing back to the Illinois River in Peoria.

The Chicago-based group Recovery on Water, or ROW, sponsored a learn-to-row event on the river for 20 breast cancer survivors Sunday.

“Rowing was prominent in Peoria years ago,” said Jenn Junk, rowing coach for ROW Chicago. “Back then it was predominantly done by men. Now it’s being brought back to Peoria by a bunch of women.”

ROW was looking to expand their program to other cities, and Peoria is proving to be a good fit, said Junk. With the right sponsorship, the group will be able to buy a rowing barge and establish a permanent group in Peoria.

Junk has been working with Kassie Williams, a Peoria-area survivor who recruited other survivors to join the group. The women have been working out twice a week at CrossFit North Peoria on rowing machines arranged in two rows facing each other, with the coach in the middle, said Williams. Sunday was the group’s first opportunity to get out on the river.

“Oh my gosh, I’m thrilled,” said Williams. “I’m thrilled to get out on the boat, but also to watch the enthusiasm everyone has about this.”

Rowing is good exercise, which is important for breast cancer survivors, said Junk. Most survivors have undergone a number of very invasive interventions, including surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. These treatments can leave long-term side-effects like lymphedema, obesity and depression. Studies have shown that exercise reduces depression and fatigue, improves lymphedema, bone density, body mass index, and ultimately reduces recurrence rates.

“Exercise can help reduce breast cancer recurrence by up to 50 percent,” said Junk.

Perhaps equally important is that rowing is an endeavor that requires teamwork, fostering a supportive environment for participants who often feel isolated by their diagnosis. Most of the women in Peoria ROW are relatively young, said Williams. They range in age from 31 to mid-50s, and only three are over 40. Younger survivors tend to feel particularly isolated by a cancer diagnosis, said Williams, who was diagnosed when she was 29 years old and breastfeeding twins.

“I think we feel like, as a society, that cancer — especially breast cancer — is a disease of the elderly,” she said. “We think of middle to older age women, certainly not women in their 20s and 30s. It can feel like, ‘Why me?’ It’s hitting us in the prime of our lives — most of us have children."

While the Peoria rowers rarely talk about cancer when they are together, the shared experience links them.

“Just knowing the women in the room have been there and gone through what I’ve gone through gives you a sense of strength,” Williams said.

The endeavor may be forming a few lasting friendships.

“Most of the women in the group had never met each other before walking in the door at CrossFit,” said Williams. “Now we see them staying late and chitchatting after class, making plans to do things together. We’ve really become a family.”

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.