Teams have names such as Pink Paddlers, Chemo Savvy, and Wonder Broads. Competitors range in age from the 30s to the 90s. All of them cheer not necessarily for their team to win, but for all teams to finish. And win or lose, every competitor already has earned a title: Breast Cancer Survivor.
Oh, and you can call them Dragon Boaters, too.
An ancient form of transportation in China, Dragon Boating became associated with breast cancer survivors in 1996. In an effort to counter common thought that avoidance of exercise would prevent lymphedema, or localized swelling, Canadian doctor Don McKenzie recruited 24 breast cancer patients to participate in the activity, which closely resembles crew. Over time, he found that exercise can be beneficial and reduces lymphedema. An added bonus was the sense of accomplishment, newfound friendships, and joy at doing something new.
From that first boat in the waters off Vancouver, word spread around the world. There are now more than 100 Dragon Boat teams, and while competition is a part of Dragon Boat events, the main purpose is to provide an exercise program, promote breast cancer awareness, and increase confidence.
Each boat consists of 22 women: 20 pull the oars, moving the boat through the water; one serves as steersman, directing the boat's movement; and one serves as drummer - literally beating a drum so the women in the back of the boat stay in time and rhythm with those in the front.
Patricia Nolan is a member of the Central Coast SurviveOars, a team based in Morro Bay, California. For her, Dragon Boating is not just a physical exercise, but one that helps her bond with others, as well as providing emotional and mental exercise, too.
"We work together paddling, laugh together and support each other through our ups and downs," Nolan said. "Dragon Boating is about strengthening your core both physically and metaphorically. Some of us have limited movement because of complications from surgery, so we learn to work with our bodies instead of against them."
Nolan is a four-time breast cancer survivor who has served as a consumer reviewer of research proposals for the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program. She said that the emotional support from her teammates has been the biggest benefit of her experience, and is more valuable and memorable to her then even winning races.
According to Dr. McKenzie's review of his original study, Dragon Boating was chosen for its safety, lower risk of injury than weight-dependent activities, and reasonable potential for muscular growth and increased stamina. Dr. McKenzie also saw the activity as having the potential to help build team unity, togetherness, and a shared spirit of support and cooperation.
Terry Johnson, coach of Pink Paddlers in Las Vegas, first learned of Dragon Boating while living in Asia. While waiting in her doctor's office for the diagnosis of her cancer, she read an article about Dragon Boating sponsored by Team Survivor, and what began as a curiosity became an active part of her life.
"Our team is pretty serious about competing, but it is more of an experience of healing and self-discovery," Johnson said. It's not about winning. It's about finding your own power, and finding your strength. What I tell women who are curious about this is, 'I don't care what your physical ability is. If you're a survivor, I want you on the boat.'"
Johnson called her Dragon Boat experience transformative, and she sees that in others, as well.
"We do this two or three times a month, and sometimes when I drive out to the lake in the heat of summer, I think about what else is going on in my life, and I wonder why I do this," Johnson said. "Then we all meet, we get on the boat, and we push away, and that simple act just means so much. We push away from our issues and problems, and it becomes a sisterhood, a community, and a floating support group."
After an auto accident prevented her from rowing, Johnson took the helm as coach of her Dragon Boat team. When recruiting new team members, Johnson said inner confidence is key.
"None of us chose to have breast cancer, but we all have chosen to get on the boat," Johnson said. "People have called us brave, and fighters, and warriors, for going through what we have, but none of us wanted to do that. Being on the boat is a transformative experience. We're there because this is something we want to do."
Like Nolan, Johnson served on a DoD Breast Cancer Research Program peer review panel, an experience she said was challenging, emotional, and rewarding. She was in awe of scientists and clinicians who are as passionate about discovering potential new treatments as she is.
For many people, the image of 22 women - breast cancer survivors, one and all - climbing into a long, narrow boat and propelling it across a large body of water is difficult to comprehend. Nolan and Johnson can speak of women who doubted themselves before taking a leap of faith, strapping on a life jacket, and plunging an oar into the water. Once experienced, though, Dragon Boating becomes more than an activity - it becomes a victory. Not in the traditional sense, of conquering a foe in competition, but conquering fear, doubt, pity, and pain.
"There is something about being on the water that is therapeutic. It might be flat and glassy, quiet and shimmery, foggy and misty, or gray and choppy. This ever-changing energy of water mirrors each of our journeys through cancer," Nolan said. "We have all had or have cancer but each journey is different. Dragon Boating has taught me that cancer does not define me. It is merely the gray choppy part of my journey."