It could be the most beautiful summer day in Nova Scotia or the harshest day of winter; if there are waves, Amber Spurrell will surf.

Even while undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy.

“Getting in the ocean allowed me not to have cancer for a few minutes and just be,” says Spurrell, 42, who was diagnosed last year with breast cancer.

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

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

She underwent a double mastectomy 15 days later — and found out she wouldn’t be able to lie down on a surfboard for weeks.

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

amber close up
Spurrell feared she’d 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 her long to pop up to her feet. 

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 gliding across waves along Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore.

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

Surfing as a form of healing 

Using nature — specifically water — as a form of healing isn’t a new idea.

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

Nova Scotia is getting its own program this summer.

Counselling therapist Shelby Miller plans to launching Sea Clear Therapeutics next month after being inspired by a documentary about surfing as an alternative form of therapy for veterans dealing with PTSD.

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

“Surf therapy is pretty cool because it’s not a lot of talking and a whole lot of surfing,” Miller says. “It’s nice for people who have a hard time coming to therapy and talking about their problems and the things they have experienced.”

She says surfing can help people enter what’s known as the brain’s flow state, when an individual is completely absorbed in an activity.

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

Spurrell considered surfing to be her personal form of treatment as she battled cancer. There were times where she didn’t have the energy to paddle into waves or pop up.

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

But witnessing the sounds of waves crashing, inhaling the salty air of the beach, and feeling the frigid water splash across her face was the distraction she needed.

“I needed that suffering more than I needed to be at home laying on the couch,” she says. “I just wanted to be motivated by the elements. They drive me.”

Spurrell’s road to recovery

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

She will continue to use surfing to feel like herself again.

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

“It’s still healing me.”

surf community
Spurrell says the surf community rallied around her both 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 take time off from teaching. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

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