“Abreast in a Boat”: Breast Cancer Survivors and Dragonboating

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Why Breast Cancer Survivors?


Courtesy of Abreast in a Boat


To understand how breast cancer survivors and dragon boating have become inextricably paired, you have to look to a Canadian sports medicine physician named Dr. Don C. McKenzie. In the fall of 1995, Dr. McKenzie,a sports medicine physician and an exercise physiologist, was conducting a research project at the Allan McGaving Sports Medicine Center, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC. This study looked at the cardio-respiratory fitness levels of two groups of women - one group had been treated for breast cancer, the other group had no history of breast cancer.


The breast cancer group had many anecdotal stories about the "don'ts" they had been told after treatment. Most of this advice restricted activities involving the upper body. Though well-intentioned, there was no published research that supported this information. A desire to return these individuals to an unrestricted, active lifestyle, as well as the lack of scientific proof to the contrary, was the impetus behind Dr. McKenzie's idea to form this first, all breast cancer survivor's dragon boat team. (Abreast in a Boat)


Dragon boating was chosen as the venue for several reasons; it is a strenuous, repetitive, upper body exercise; it provides an opportunity to work with a large group at one time; it provides a valuable training stimulus which results in a predictable improvement in fitness; it is an esthetically pleasing activity that is fun; and Vancouver's Dragon Boat Festival is one of the World's largest and therefore, would visibly provide an excellent opportunity to reach a large number of people.


In February 1996, the first team was formed. The only criterion to join the team was a history of breast cancer. Age, athletic ability, paddling experience – none of this mattered. Paddlers came from all parts of Vancouver area and from all walks of life. Ages ranged from 31 to 62! The women volunteered for this adventure not knowing what problems, if any, would occur. They were, and are, a very courageous group. A slow, progressive weight training and aerobic exercise program was the starting point. This program was designed by Don to meet the needs of this special group. April was the start of the "on-the-water" training and the beginning of a very special floating support group.


As with the exercise program, the paddling training was done in a very slow, progressive manner with lots more rest time than paddling time! The training and coaching were excellent and were the key elements in avoiding the potential problems of lymphedema and the musculoskeletal problems associated with unaccustomed exercise. Key players surfaced to contribute enormous volumes of time and expertise: Diana Jespersen, Sue Buchan, Drew Mitchell, Urve Kuusk and Sherri Neisen provided the critical mass of volunteers to help make this work. As the weeks went by, the paddling increased and so did the camaraderie. Missing practice was something no one wanted to do.


The goal that first year was simply to complete the racecourse at the Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival in June. After that first race, the sense of accomplishment was enormous. There were many hugs and tears all around not just from the team members, but also from their families, friends and lots of the spectators. It certainly was an emotional moment!


And where did they place in that first race? As Don McKenzie said prior to the race, "It doesn't matter where they finish in this race, they are already winners."


From the simple idea of "let's put together a dragon boat team of women living with breast cancer", there has been tremendous growth. There are now several boats in Vancouver, numerous teams in other cities in Canada, as well as other countries. The Abreast In a Boat Society has been established and we encourage all people living with breast cancer to be inspired by these teams and know that "There is life after breast cancer!"


The beneficial effect of exercise on those who have suffered from cancer is really no surprise; it is a stress reducer, improves circulation, and strengthens us both physically and mentally.  Breast cancer survivors all over the world are finding ways to exercise - many are participating in the sport of Dragon boat racing.  Whether you participate in this ancient sport, or find another activity, we hope that this issue inspires you to exercise!


Paddling Our Way to Recovery


By Linda Dyer


Here in Burlington, Vermont, breast cancer survivors have found a unique way to recover after a cancer diagnosis.  We do it through the ancient Chinese sport of dragon boating.  Our team is called Dragonheart Vermont and we are passionate about paddling our way to recovery.  The impact of a breast cancer diagnosis with the accompanying surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and/or hormonal treatment can often make a person feel lost in its aftermath.  Taking on the challenging sport of dragon boating gives us a chance to feel connected and empowered.  Dragon boating is the ultimate team sport.  There is no such thing as individual glory, just team effort - and joy!  We sit together in a 41-foot long canoe that is powered by 20 of us paddling together.  Ranging from age 22- to 76-years-old, none of us on Dragonheart had ever paddled a dragon boat before cancer.  Few of us could ever call ourselves athletes – that is, until now. Dragon boating has helped us to recover the person we were.  Even better, it helps to redefine ourselves by the person we are becoming after cancer.  In a dragon boat, we feel our strength and begin to trust in our bodies again.  Best of all, we feel the collective power of the boat and the comfort in the connection with all of our teammates.


For our Dragonheart team, we choose to focus not on the disease but on living. Dragon boating makes us feel alive.  We paddle together two to three times a week from May to October on beautiful Lake Champlain.  Our team began with just the dream that we could start a dragon boat team here in Vermont.  With just a handful of paddlers and a borrowed boat, Dragonheart began in the summer of 2004.  Maybe it was the sight of the long skinny boat or the sound of our loud laughter, but by summer's end, Dragonheart had grown to over 50 members.  The team worked tirelessly to raise the funds needed to buy our dragon boats.  The people in our community embraced our cause, particularly the staff of the Radiation Oncology Department at Fletcher Allen Healthcare, our local hospital.  In May 2005, Dragonheart proudly took delivery of two new dragon boats.  We named them Lady and the Champ.  For the team, it meant that there was just no stopping us.  We have raced in festivals in the United States and Canada. We have grown to more than 110 members.  Together our team feels that we can do anything.


This summer, Dragonheart put on the very first Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival.  We wanted to share our love of dragon boating with the community that had embraced our cause.  It was a huge success.  We involved 52 community teams to come out and race, though most had never heard of dragon boating before.  Our plan was to create a day of fun, fitness, and fundraising.  It was truly a day to celebrate community. In the end, our Dragonheart team will forever remember the smiles, hugs, and joy of the day.  We are particularly proud of the fact that our festival raised enough money to purchase an ultrasound machine for our beloved Radiation Oncology Department.


For those who have joined Dragonheart, it has become a passion and a new way of life.  Many members have made lifestyle changes to improve their eating habits and incorporate regular exercise into their lives.  We joke that some members have 'youthened' since becoming a Dragonhearter.  All we know is that the sport of dragon boating has "awakened the dragon within us."  It has empowered us and brought friendships and joy into our lives.  Together we feel strong and hopeful that we can meet whatever future challenges come our way.


To learn more about Dragonheart Vermont, go to www.dragonheartvermont.org


To learn more about our Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival, go to www.ridethedragon.org


Read on to discover what Dragonheart's new goal is for next year!


Abreast in Australia 2007


By Linda McSweeney


Kangaroos, Koalas, and Crocs, beware of the "Pink Lady Invasion Down Under!"


In September 2007 over 1700 breast cancer survivors will converge on the Sunshine Coast of Australia for a 3-day Dragon Boat Festival. Dragonheart Vermont is one of just four U.S. teams registered for this event, and for us, it is the trip of a lifetime.  The Festival will be a wonderful celebration of life and at the same time put an international face on breast cancer and the women who live with this disease.  The breast cancer survivors of Dragonheart in Burlington Vermont range in age from 24 to 76, have various diagnoses from DCIS to advanced, metastatic cancers, several have arm or trunk lymphedema, and we have a few titanium knees to make things interesting.  Our "Team Australia" will be training on and off the water this year as we prepare for our Australia races.  Although Abreast in Australia 2007 is just a "friendly competition," we take our sport seriously and are developing a training program to prepare for this event.  Lake Champlain will be frozen this winter, but Dragonheart will be keeping our muscles and hearts warm with pilates, yoga, weight training and Taiko Drumming. 


Two years ago, several Dragonheart paddlers had the opportunity to participate in the 10-year anniversary of the first breast cancer dragon boat team, Abreast in a Boat, in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia.  At the evening festivities 1500 of us from around the world laughed, cried, hugged and boogied in our pink boas.  That night, the enthusiastic Australian paddlers pledged to host the next international event as we all chanted "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oy, Oy, Oy!" 


Dragonheart still has a year of fundraising, training and preparation for our grand adventure to the "land down under."  For some of us there is more surgery; for others clinical trials or physical therapy; and there are the unknown challenges. But we know that we are all in the same boat together-not quot;stuck" in the same boat because of our cancer, but together in our boat by choice with joy and hope supporting each other, pulling as hard as we can on our paddles, each and every one of us a winner.


For more information about Abreast in Australia go to:  http://www.dragonsabreast.com.au/2007/index.htm.           


Linda McSweeney is a 2 ½ year breast cancer survivor who will be wearing her Compressure Comfort® Bra on the long flight from Burlington, Vermont to Australia.