Get to Know: Sail Beyond Cancer

Suzanne Johnson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. An active single mother of three young children, Suzanne was used to multitasking as she was a serial entrepreneur and was well known in her community of Burlington, VT as a realtor, restauranter and aerobics instructor. During her eight years of treatment, she went through some major moments of transformation.  Looking back on that time, Johnson vividly recalls the feeling of not being recognizable as she was running her usual errands in the neighborhood. “I would say hello to people, and they would just give me a blank stare because I was bald and did not look the way I used to before treatment,” said Johnson. It was at that time that Johnson decided she wanted to re-integrate into the world differently. In a more meaningful way. “I became very aware during this time about the core of my identity and that my deepest desire and life’s work is to help people and create community.” 

As Johnson was soul-searching about what her “re-entry” after treatment would look like, something dawned on her. She went back to her roots and her upbringing in what she calls a “nautical family.” Her father was the Commodore of a NY Boat Club and Johnson grew up sailing. At age 22, she was encouraged to study for and receive her United States Coast Guard 50 Ton Captain’s license and found solace on the water during her cancer recovery. She recalls that “sailing was a major factor in making it through the darkest, most challenging moments of my life.” With that firsthand experience in mind, Johnson was inspired to start a non-profit organization whose mission is to provide private respite sails, free of charge, for anyone coping with any type or stage of cancer. The program, Sail Beyond Cancer, was an instant success providing private sailing experiences and lasting memories to over 1500 cancer patients and their loved ones. 

The mission of Sail Beyond Cancer is to honor those challenged by cancer by harnessing the healing powers of wind, water, and sail. Anyone who has been impacted by a cancer diagnosis can be nominated to participate in a sailing experience with six or seven of their loved ones. “This is not a ‘learn to sail’ excursion. Instead, it’s an opportunity for a cancer patient to take a few hours away from everything, including their cancer, and leave it all ashore,” said Johnson. Each sail is run by volunteer Captains and crew who make each sail meaningful and personal. Testimonials from participants have stated that the experience is so meaningful because it provides an opportunity for patients to say, “thank you” and even “give back” to those friends, family members, and caregivers who sail along with them.

Johnson stresses that “The captain and crew are there to provide a safe and enjoyable experience. What we do on a sail is truly ‘hold space” for our passengers and give them the chance to connect with each other in nature. We ‘hand the helm’ to the nominee (aka patient) as soon as we can once the sails are up and the engine is off- to give them something that they are in control of since nothing has felt ‘ in control’ since their diagnosis. This has proven to be very exhilarating and powerful for the nominees. I have witnessed incredible joy, relief, release, and gratitude among those who have set sail with us over the years.

Sail Beyond Cancer currently has three chapters:  

  • Sail Beyond Cancer North Shore, Salem, MA.
  • Sail Beyond Cancer VT, Burlington, VT.
  • Sail Beyond Cancer Annapolis, Annapolis, MD.

Patients (nominees) and their five guests can come from any part of the country or in the world to sail at any of these chapters.

“It is my goal before I leave this planet to have people who have cancer think of Sail Beyond Cancer as they do the Make-A-Wish Foundation.” Johnson and her spectacular and caring crew of volunteers and wonderful supporters within each community are together and are making this happen, One Sail at a Time.

Nominate someone for a sail here.

To volunteer click here.

To help support making these wonderful sails happen click here.

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