“Why would women with breast cancer want to learn to play tennis? Cancer is such a serious business and tennis is, well, it's play.” These are often the thoughts brought about when first hearing about the Tennis for Life program at the Ridgewood Racquet Club in Ridgewood, N.J.
Tennis for Life is a program held in conjunction with the Northern New Jersey Cancer Treatment and Prevention Center at Hackensack University Medical Center. It offers breast cancer survivors an opportunity to enjoy free weekly tennis lessons and play-no matter the playing skill level or stage of recovery. The group meets on Sunday afternoons for an hour-and-a-half, followed by an informative speaker or coffee and an information sharing session.
Chris Mathewson, a board member and manager of the club notes that since its inception in 1998, more than 150 women have participated in Tennis for Life. “As far as we know, this program is unique in this country. Recently, we were recognized by the Zonta Clubs of Bergen County, which presented us with its Trailblazer Award,” she says. “Additionally, Ridgewood Racquet Club has received the Good Business Partnership Award from the Northern New Jersey Business Council for its support of Tennis for Life, and the United States Tennis Association aids our program, as well.”
Scott Devens adds that the program, founded by his wife Marcia, was “born” out of need and has flourished in the years since.
“My wife started this program. At that point, she had been battling cancer for about 11 years. She was an avid tennis player and found that tennis helped her with everything she had to go through,” says Devens. “Marcia realized that playing tennis aided in recovery by building upper body strength, increasing stamina and endurance and helping with weight control.”
Vlady Smolkin, the energetic tennis pro who teaches in the program, believes the benefits go far beyond improving physical strength and tennis skills.
“I don't allow the women to think of their situation when they are on the court. A cancer diagnosis can take over your life and overpower everything else. It becomes all you can think of,” explains Smolkin. “I make them concentrate on only one thing: hitting the ball. This way, they see themselves getting better and better each week and stronger and stronger. It is a tremendous boost to their self esteem and induces optimism.”
Terry Grayner has participated for several years and now runs the program agrees that there is more to the Tennis for Life program than meets the eyes.
“Here we do everything to empower our participants. It is important that passive victims become transformed into survivors who take an active role in ensuring their own survival,” she says. “For example, one of our players Jannat Bey heads our Advocacy Committee and reports on issues where our people's voice can make a difference. These include legislative initiatives, dealing with insurance companies, lobbying for a Patient's Bill of Rights, etc.”
The combined benefits help members such as Chris Nyland not only feel better but also feel accepted — not always easy for women surviving with breast cancer.
“The atmosphere of support one gets here is as important as the physical exercise. Having cancer is a club you never thought you would join. No one, except another survivor, knows what you are going through,” Nyland says. “As soon as you come to Tennis for Life, you are accepted and become part of the group.”