Riding the waves off Nova Scotia, this surfer says she felt cancer-free

It could be the nicest summer day in Nova Scotia or the hardest day in winter; if there are waves, Amber Spurrell will surf.

Even undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy.

“Going into the ocean allowed me to be cancer free for a few minutes and just be,” says Spurrell, 42, who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year.

At 27, Spurrell met her birth mother for the first time and learned that her family had a history of breast cancer.

Spurrell had annual mammograms throughout her 30s, but her annual screening in 2020 was canceled due to the pandemic. On June 21, 2021, the Dartmouth woman was told she had stage 2 breast cancer.

She had a double mastectomy 15 days later and found she couldn’t lie on a surfboard for weeks.

“My main concern was how am I going to surf without my boobs?” she says.

Spurrell feared she would no longer be able to surf after being diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy. (Steve Lawrence/CBC News)

All Spurrell wanted was to get back in the water. It didn’t take him long to get up.

She had to make adjustments like surfing with foam in her wetsuit to protect her chest, but just 33 days after her surgery, Spurrell was back riding the waves along the east coast of Nova Scotia.

“I needed to be held,” she said. “And the ocean did that for me.”

Surfing as a form of healing

Using nature – especially water – as a form of healing is not a new idea.

There are more than 50 surf therapy programs around the world that use surfing to promote wellness, according to the International Surf Therapy Organization, a Los Angeles-based advocacy and research group.

Nova Scotia will have its own program this summer.

Counseling therapist Shelby Miller plans to launch Sea Clear Therapeutics next month after being inspired by a documentary about surfing as an alternative form of therapy for veterans suffering from PTSD.

Shelby Miller is launching the province’s first surf therapy program this summer. (Robert Guertin/Radio Canada)

“Surf therapy is pretty cool because there’s not a lot of talk and a lot of surfing,” Miller says. “It’s good for people who have a hard time coming to therapy and talking about their issues and the things they’ve been through.”

She says surfing can help people enter what’s called brain flow state, when an individual is completely engrossed in an activity.

“It just takes you out of what you’re going through and brings you into the experience of surfing,” she says.

Spurrell considered surfing her personal form of treatment as she battled cancer. There were times when she didn’t have the energy to paddle through the waves or surge.

Spurrell says getting into the water made her feel like herself again. (Will McLernon/CBC News)

But witnessing the sound of the crashing waves, breathing in the salty beach air, and feeling the freezing water splash on her face was the distraction she needed.

“I needed this pain more than I needed to be home lying on the couch,” she says. “I just wanted to be motivated by the elements. They motivate me.”

Spurrell’s Road to Recovery

Spurrell is currently in immunotherapy. She will undergo treatment every three weeks until November, followed by hormone treatment for the next five years. She feels her muscles coming back, but still struggles with heart fatigue and brain fog.

She will continue to use the surf to feel herself again.

“Cancer is the hardest thing I’ve ever been through, but the elements you encounter while surfing got me through it,” she says.

“It still heals me.”

Spurrell says the surfing community has rallied around her in and out of the water. A fundraiser by Nova Scotia surfers raised $18,000 in just two days to help Spurrell pay for treatment and time off from teaching. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)