Charlie Howden settled into the recliner, one of a half-dozen or so cancer patients in this private Fort Lauderdale clinic. He would be here five hours in all, eventually drifting into a deep slumber as he received a slow-release chemotherapy treatment.
Just two days before, Howden was on a paddleboard, navigating the waterway running along the Colohatchee Boat Ramp in Wilton Manors. He trains, several hours and miles at a time, preparing for a “stand-up paddleboard” excursion down the west coast of Costa Rica to raise money for cancer research.
This is life for Howden, a water enthusiast and now a cancer survivor: chemotherapy treatments; rest, recover and work; paddleboard training. All in a two-week cycle. His journey began as fundraiser for a small South Carolina-based cancer research foundation and then, quite suddenly, as a cancer patient.
“The irony is not lost on me,” says Howden, 36, the day before his latest round of chemotherapy, his sixth session this year. “I still want to help. As long as I am strong, I am planning to do this paddle and help to raise money.”
For Howden, the paddle-down is as much for him as the people he hopes to help.
“I dream about this, about making the trip,” said Howden, who lives with his fiancee, Dalya Vidal in Wilton Manors. “This is one of the things that keeps me going.”
He grew up by the sea in Eastbourne, East Sussex, England. By his early 20s, Howden had become an officer working on private yachts, first as a way to pay off college debts, then, as a career choice. Four years ago, he discovered the sport of stand-up paddleboarding.
“I tried paddling for the first time and I loved it. I already had this love of water and surfing,” he said. “There’s something about the water, the freedom and adventures. I found a deep connection with paddleboarding.”
In between yacht runs, Howden paddled, standing on his seven-foot board, gliding along the waterways. Before long, he had mastered the sport and competed in races. His first was a six-mile race in Deerfield Beach three years ago.
With races under his belt, Howden wanted to turn his passion into a fundraiser, an expedition-style endurance paddle. After using a navigation system to research routes along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, he settled on a 400-mile trip from the northern border to the southern border of the country. While at a five-mile race in Puerto Rico, a friend suggested he help raise money for the William Guy Forbeck Research Foundation, an organization that helps facilitate cancer research. Howden signed on.
The foundation works to promote advances in oncology and shorten cancer research timetables by focusing on collaborations between scientists and clinicians. George and Jennifer Forbeck launched the Hilton Head-based organization in honor of their son, William (Billy) Guy Forbeck, who died of neuroblastoma, a rare pediatric cancer, at age 11.
The fundraising goal: $50,000, to be used toward the foundation’s annual three-day think tank for cancer researchers. So far, about $3,200 has been raised through a GoFundMe page.
“Charlie is an amazing, driven individual. When we found out he had cancer, we kept asking, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ but he kept pushing,” said the foundation’s executive director Jamie Collins “He just kept saying he wanted to raise money.”
Originally, the Costa Rica challenge was set for March, 2013. But as he began training, Howden started to experience stomach pain and back spasms. Over the months, the pain worsened.
“We couldn’t figure out what was going on. I was in pain all the time,” he said. “I still remember how bad my back was hurting after a 12-mile paddle race back in May [of 2013]. I was putting heating pads on my back and just thinking I had done too much. We had no idea at the time.”
Howden was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer at the beginning of August 2013 and began treatment within weeks. He has insurance, but still has to pay some costs on his own. With his fiancee, he started a GoFundMe page that raised about $54,000 for his care.
“The hardest part of this was having to tell my family and to tell them the statistics for this kind of cancer are never good,” he said. “But I keep telling myself that I am strong and that I can beat this.”
Research shows pancreatic cancer is the fourth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths. After a year of chemotherapy and radiation, Howden’s scans came back negative. But the remission lasted only until January.
Now, he has returned to treatment and training — rotating every other week between chemotherapy and paddling — with a new date for the paddle in late April or early May, depending on his health and the weather. Howden plans to stand-up paddleboard in the two-week gap between his regular chemotherapy treatments.
The preparation is daunting: On the off weeks of chemotherapy, Howden does handy work on yachts to earn a living. Once treatment started, he left his job as an officer. During that off week, he also tries to paddle at least three times a week for strength and endurance. And he also rides his mountain bike one or two times a week. Last weekend, he rode his bike about 10 miles and paddled another 10 miles.
For the Costa Rican challenge, Howden plans to paddle 25 to 30 miles a day, about a mile offshore just beyond where the surf breaks. Vidal and a friend will follow by car. Howden will also monitor his blood pressure and temperature and check in regularly with a doctor along the way.
“I try to start each day fresh again,” he said. “I work really hard to forget about the rough patches so that I can keep going. That is what I have to do to beat this.”
To donate to the Costa Rica Challenge, visit the William Guy Forbeck Research Foundation’s GoFundMe page at http://www.gofundme.com/lev494