It was late 2007 and I was getting ready for yet another surgery related to my breast cancer recurrence the year before, when a family member asked me if I had heard of a group of breast cancer survivors who had formed a dragon boat racing team. “A dragon what?” you’re asking yourself. Yep, I had the same reaction.
A few weeks later, my plastic surgeon brought up the same topic during an office visit. Geez, again? What is this thing? The doctor told me the group was called Save Our Sisters (SOS) and they were a rowing team that practiced off Virginia Key.
Ah, a rowing team (actually a paddling team, as I would soon learn). Having been physically active most of my life, I was intrigued by the thought. But wait a minute – women who had undergone numerous surgeries and debilitating treatments for breast cancer were rowing? Really? Where do they get the strength? Where do they find the stamina? When can I go check this out?
And so began my love affair with the sport of dragon boating and my extraordinary journey with the unbelievable women of Team SOS. Getting hooked on this sport is referred to as “being bitten by the dragon,” and man, did it ever take a chunk out of me! Little did I know the experience would open up a whole new world of empowerment, well-being, and sisterhood that would change my life forever.
Dragon boating is nothing new. It originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. But in the mid-1970s, it reemerged as an international sport.
Teams consist of 20 people in a canoe-like boat who must paddle in sync to pull an average of 4,000 pounds of boat and humanity through the water – no small feat. During races, the boats are adorned with elaborately painted dragon heads and tails, hence, the name dragon boats.
But what does this ancient sport have to do with breast cancer survivors?
Cue Canadian sports medicine expert Dr. Don MacKenzie, who in 1996 created the first breast cancer survivor dragon boat team in a trial to prove that repetitive physical activity would be beneficial to these patients. He called the team Abreast in a Boat. Understandably, it was a crazy idea, because for decades breast cancer survivors had been told not to engage in strenuous physical activity for fear it would create more health risks to their already compromised bodies.
But as Dr. Mackenzie suspected, the experiment worked. Dragon boating improved the strength, flexibility and immune system of the women, and increased their bone mass and general well-being – not to mention the important emotional support, camaraderie, and information system it provided. The trial inspired dozens and dozens of survivor teams around the world and catapulted Dr. Mackenzie to pretty much rock star status.
Dragon boating has given me the opportunity for much-recommended physical activity and an outlet for my competitive spirit. But the benefits go way beyond that. The fact that I get to enjoy this sport in the company of other breast cancer survivors reminds me every day that cancer does not define me as a person.
Martha, 11-year breast cancer survivor
Martha lives her life in tune with one of her favorite quotes, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” As a member of Miami’s breast cancer survivor dragon boat racing team, Save Our Sisters, she enjoys the camaraderie of paddling with a new breed of survivor; groundbreaking women who don’t let breast cancer dictate their every move. That philosophy has seen her through years of surgeries, debilitating treatments, and two breast cancer diagnoses. It’s a journey that has made her very appreciative of life, her family and her many friends. A Miami native, she enjoys traveling, food & wine, cheering on the Miami Heat basketball team and shoe shopping. Professionally, she produces events for Baptist Health South Florida and previously worked in special events and public relations for luxury department stores. (Martha is on the right).
First of a two-part series about dragon boating for breast cancer survivors, and Save Our Sisters, Miami’s all-breast-cancer-survivor dragon boat racing team. Part II was posted Wednesday September 19th.
PLEASE JOIN THE CONVERSATION
As a part of our mission to make The Journey a powerful voice for everyone in our community, we invite each of you to consider joining the conversation and sharing your journey with comments and feedback. You don’t have to be a breast cancer survivor, you can be a caregiver, or a friend, or a concerned citizen. What we are looking for is meaningful and helpful conversations that will encourage other people as they travel along their journey. Sharing is caring and very cathartic. I sincerely urge you to take part.