Going for the Pink
Editor’s Note: We published a piece about dragon boat racing in our June issue. A reader reached out to let us know that dragon boat teams also are an important experience for some in the breast cancer survivor community, offering something good for the body, mind, and soul. Evidence one team’s signature phrase, describing its race experience: “We seldom place, but we always win.” Below, our reader’s account….
In 1996 a doctor in Vancouver, British Columbia brought together a group of 24 breast cancer survivors (ranging in age from 31 to 62 years) and organized a dragon boat team. Donald McKenzie, MD, PhD, was a professor in the Department of Sports Medicine at the University of British Columbia and an exercise physiologist. He wanted to challenge the commonly held idea that breast cancer patients should not do repetitive motion and rigorous upper body exercise so as not to risk developing lymphedema.
The 24 women, many of whom had never been athletic in their lives, volunteered to train and practice. The goal was to build a team that would be able to participate in Vancouver’s Dragon Boat Festival. The team, Abreast in a Boat, entered its first race in 1996. None of the women developed lymphedema.
After that first season, Dr. McKenzie thought that would be the end of the enterprise, but the women on the team had other thoughts. They wanted to continue. A movement was born.
The seeds that were sown grew rapidly. The women became ambassadors for the sport, helping other teams get started. The earliest teams started in Canada, but it wouldn’t be too long before teams started springing up in the United States and beyond. Currently there are at least 260 breast cancer dragon boat teams around the world.
The benefits of being a part of a breast cancer survivors’ team are many. Yes, there is exercise. Hard exercise! There is teamwork—you need to paddle in harmony if you’re going to move that boat forward. There is camaraderie—the experience of sharing a common goal with women who understand the journey. There is shared laughter, and sometimes tears when a team loses someone to the disease. And there is a special kind of grit, born of determination to dig in, just as we dug in on our way back to health.
One thing that sets breast cancer dragon teams apart is the flower ceremony that takes place at festivals. It typically takes place after the final breast cancer survivor division races at an organized festival. If it’s a dedicated breast cancer survivor festival, the ceremony would take place at the end of the festival. Boats filled with women, all holding pink flowers, converge in the water. Women hold hands across boats. A speaker makes some remarks, celebrating the lives of survivors, offering home for those currently battling the disease, and honoring those who have passed. Flowers are then tossed in the water.
The International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) is an organization whose mission is to encourage the establishment of breast cancer dragon boat teams within the framework of participation and inclusiveness. The organization supports the development of recreational dragon boat paddling as a contribution to a healthy lifestyle for those diagnosed with breast cancer.
The IBCPC organizes international festivals every four years. In 2018, the festival was held in Florence, Italy, with teams racing on the Arno. When I lived in New Jersey, I was a member of the Machestic Dragons, a team that practiced at Mercer Lake. The team hosted an annual festival that included club teams, community teams, and breast cancer survivor teams. We traveled as a team to Florence, Italy. It was an experience I treasure. ▼
Kathleen Lehmann is a retired social worker and breast cancer survivor who moved to Delaware from New Jersey in 2020. She has been a part of the Women’s FEST planning committee the last two years.