Sep 22, 2010
October 2010 Issue: For some people, relaxing means leaning back and putting their feet up. Not so for ASCO member W. Charles Penley, MD, of Tennessee Oncology, who finds relaxation paddling whitewater rapids. Dr. Penley—Immediate Past Chair of the Clinical Practice Committee and member of the Cancer Education Committee and The ASCO Cancer Foundation Board of Directors—is an avid outdoorsman and certified swiftwater rescue instructor. He discusses what he calls “my transition from the golf-shoe crowd to the Teva sandal crowd” with ASCO Connection.
AC: What sparked your interest in outdoor activities like whitewater paddling?
Dr. Penley: When I was in college, I was into camping and backpacking, but I had gotten pretty far away from all that in my everyday life. Until the early 1990s, I played golf two or three days a week and didn’t own a pair of jeans or a collarless shirt. My sons were getting to be 10 or 11 years of age and were starting Boy Scouts—they joined a troop that did a lot of whitewater canoeing. We grew to love it, and we spent a lot of our time together outdoors. We camped, canoed, hiked, backpacked—all the things that Boy Scouts and dads do. As my sons got older, we joined one of the canoeing clubs in Middle Tennessee because we couldn’t get enough of it. By that time, I’d resigned my country club membership and owned more T-shirts than collared shirts.
I’m 53 now, so I paddle less, but I still like to do it. We have a 12-year-old daughter and I take her canoeing. We hike, we fish, we fly-fish, we backpack...and I still don’t play golf. And I feel pretty good about that. I went through the “golf-withdrawal program” in the early ’90s, and I haven’t been back!
AC: How did you get involved in swiftwater rescue?
Dr. Penley: In the first year or two that I was paddling, we were on a canoe trip with a group of friends on the Hiwassee River in southeast Tennessee, a pleasant class II whitewater stream, and I saw a young boy flip in a small kayak. He didn’t know how to do an Eskimo roll, and he couldn’t get out of his kayak. He was struggling to get his head above water. It was clear that he was in trouble, and I just stood there paralyzed by my lack of knowledge about what to do.
Our canoe club offers an American Canoe Association (ACA) course on swiftwater rescue. That fall I took the course and became fascinated by it. I spent the time required to become certified by the ACA to teach that skill, and for about 12 years I’ve taught swiftwater rescue for our canoe club.
AC: Any high-adrenaline experiences that you can share?
Dr. Penley: There are very urgent life-threatening situations, like someone’s head being stuck underwater, and I have witnessed people being rescued by friends, but most of what happens in river-rescue situations is what we call “assists.” We paddle technical whitewater streams here in Tennessee, so there are lots of rocks and obstacles in the streams and that’s what makes it fun, but it also creates challenges. The water goes in places you can’t, and you get stuck between rocks or up against a big log in the river. We can use the skills that we learned to help someone get out of a quick jam, and the day goes on.
I’ve saved myself a couple of times. Part of what we learn in swiftwater rescue is self-rescue skills, so that we don’t become victims. About four years ago, I got stuck up against a rock, underwater, on the Big South Fork River. I could see the surface—I just couldn’t quite get there. With a little bit of knowledge, and by not panicking, I was able to push myself up the rock against the water pressure and find some air. What swiftwater rescue training really does is make us better and more safety-conscious paddlers. Most of the trips I go on now, with friends that I’ve developed over the last 15 years, usually include two or three other people who’ve had swiftwater rescue training. Your level of confidence really goes up knowing that the group is generally a safe group.
AC: What other hobbies, activities, people, or experiences help you strike a good work/life balance?
Dr. Penley: My wife and I like to travel. We’ve gravitated toward what I call active travel—not true “adventure travel” like an expedition to Greenland or the South Pole, but outdoor active stuff. We’ve taken a couple of bicycle trips to Italy with guided groups, where you bike during the day and at night you stay in a nice inn and eat good Italian food and drink good Italian wine. We did a walking tour of Scotland this summer. Two summers ago we took a five-day rafting trip down the Snake River in Hell’s Canyon in Idaho, camping at night.
My sons are now 28 and 26, so we invite them along when we can. My older son and I went to Belize on a fly-fishing trip, which was a nice getaway for the two of us. My younger son and his girlfriend went with us to the Snake River. Our daughter is almost 13, and she went rafting on the Snake River and biking in northern Italy. She humors us.
I find it very relaxing to be outdoors, and outdoor activities give me a big break from my day-to-day practice responsibilities. It has helped me stay sane—as sane as anybody can be at 53 after practicing oncology for 20-plus years.