I am lucky enough to be a breast cancer survivor, in more ways than one. One of the best outcomes is a sisterhood that is found inside the dragonboat. If you don’t know the story of international breast cancer dragonboating teams, let me enlighten you.
Just over 10 years ago, Dr. Don Mckenzie, in Vancouver, British Columbia, set out to prove that women who had had major surgery to combat breast cancer did not have to spend the rest of their lives being careful. At that time, doctors routinely told women who had undergone a mastectomy not to lift or stretch their arms too much, as it would cause swelling and lympodemia. He disagreed. Luckily, some brave cancer patients wanted to help him test his theory. His idea was to put 20 women in a dragonboat and train them to row. Not only did he prove that rowing streneously was physically safe, he also tapped into the value of the support network that such a team sport creates. Breast cancer dragonboating caught on first in Canada and now around the world. The 10th annivesary celebration in Vancouver, BC was attended by teams from around the globe (and I was there!) Dr. Don (as he is affectionately known) spoke to us and introduced some of the early paddlers. We were in tears of joy!
I paddle with a crew out of Stratford, Ontario called “Kupsized”. We are a diverse bunch of women with one thing in common- breast cancer history. Our coach and steer are a husband and wife team, Don and Gwen. They are the best! Don is muscular and funny and brings so much wisdom and experience to our team. He has a way of coaching us that is neither patronizing or aggressive. In fact, I use his style of coaching as a “best practice” example when I teach managers to coach.
Stratford offers a great venue. The river runs along the Festival Theatre route, and there are walkers, joggers, dog lovers and theatre-goers all out on a summer’s night. They often stop and watch us as we go by, and sometimes they clap or kid’s in strollers wave at us. You can bet that we middle-aged (mostly) women feel pretty darn good to get all that attention.
Dragonboating ain’t easy. Our practices are one hour and Don takes us through drills, and starts and endurance. Each year we assimilate new paddlers, so even we experienced folks have to relearn how to get in sync. Reaching forward, digging in the paddle, pulling back as you sit up – it’s hard work and oh so much fun. The lingo is fun too: Paddle’s up, Ready, Ready and Let it Run.
We’re training all summer for the big festival in Stratford on September 15. But even without the competitive races, most of us would get in the boat. The jokes and laughter, shared sweat and beautiful view of the Avon River swans at dusk is more than enough to make the trip every Tuesday night.