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Therapy At Sea: How Sailing Is Helping Cancer Patients

Five years ago, Agnese DeCarlo received treatment for cancer, but the psychological effects stayed. She found a unique and pioneering treatment for women just like her — psychotherapy on the ocean.

image showing a woman as she practices sailing.

Photo of a participant of the sailing initiative on day 5.

Agnese DeCarlo

CAPRERA — Five years have passed since I was diagnosed with cancer. There was major surgery, followed by therapy. If they had told me that the medical operation would have been the least invasive part of the process, maybe I would have been more equipped to handle what was to come.

The disease must be eliminated not only from the body, but also from the mind, where it can furrow long after its absence from the human tissue. In my case, I was lucky to discover a unique form of therapy that takes place at sea.

Confronting the sea

"Patients on Board" is a research-intervention project that aims to get patients involved in the unique experience of psychotherapy tied to a sail boating course.

It is born from the belief that the sea, with its waves and its winds, can represent a metaphor for what patients will encounter after they have received their diagnosis.

We were filling our own fractures with the blue of the ocean, letting it heal our wounds.

The course consists of one week of classes on the Italian island of Caprera, in the historic Caprera Sailing Center. Assisted by a team of psychologists from the University of Studies of Milan, as well as a team from the European Institute of Oncology, the (all female) patients become students who will learn to confront the sea. The course helps them regain the self-confidence and energy needed to take control of their own personal challenges.

Image of women in a group hug

Participants hugging one another.


Receiving a toolbox

This project was founded based on the wish to give each medical patient a "toolbox" with which they can confront their tumor, effectively helping them overcome their illness psychologically. The deteriorating cells inside of us, despite having been surgically removed, will always form a part of our soul. They will continue mutating inside of us, becoming sleepless nights, anxiety attacks and mood swings.

Each student in the program is assigned a rank. The first year I participated, I was a "tormentina" (a sail used in case of high winds). Then, the second year, I became a "gassate" (a nautical knot to represent the ties formed with our peers). The third year the name was "Kintsugi Blu", an idea taken from the Japanese reconstruction of broken things by filling the fractures with gold. We were filling our own fractures with the blue of the ocean, letting it heal our wounds.

I wanted to spread awareness of my experience with this initiative so that other women may experience the healing effects of this experiment in psycho-oncology. Hopefully men will be able to share this experience too, one day soon.

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The Benefits Of "Buongiorno"

Our Naples-based psychiatrist reflects on her morning walk to work, as she passes by people who simply want to see a friendly smile.

Photograph of a woman looking down onto the street from her balcony in Naples

A woman looks down from her balcony in Naples

Ciro Pipoli/Instagram
Mariateresa Fichele

In Naples, lonely people leave their homes early in the morning. You can tell they're lonely by the look in their eyes. Mostly men, often walking a dog, typically mixed breeds that look as scruffy as their owners. You see them heading to the coffee bar, chatting with the newsstand owner, buying cigarettes, timidly interacting with each another.

This morning as I was going to work, I tried to put myself in their shoes. I woke up tired and moody, but as soon as I left the building, I felt compelled, like every day, to say to dozens of "buongiorno!" (good morning!) and smile in return just as many times.

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