Dragon Boat becomes symbol of female strength

In each boat, women who beat breast cancer paddle with full courage

We hear four words that change our lives totally: ‘you have breast cancer’. Listening to it, our world collapses and fear invades us. It’s a roller coaster!” says Paula Faria, one of the canoeists who faced cancer and had her life transformed by canoeing. She is president of “Fortale-senos”, a Chilean group of women athletes who share pain, fears, and strength inside and outside a Dragon Boat. “One day, those same four words brought us together, because we had something in common: the will to live”.

The movement is growing in the countries of the American continent, National Federations affiliated to the Pan American Canoe Confederation are also adopting this discipline, although the entity does not have this sport in scope, there is great support and motivation for the implementation of the Dragon Boat in the Americas.

The Dragon Boat

This model of vessel originated in China, more than 2500 years ago. Its use varies in different places in Asia. It was once a military instrument, a means of transport between seas and even used in religious rituals. Currently, the Dragon Boat, which houses an average of 22 crew members, is occupied by female warriors who have overcome breast cancer.

This scenario was unthinkable a few decades ago. It was believed that the intensity of the exercises could cause swelling due to the accumulation of fluid, called lymphedemas, in patients who underwent mastectomy (breast removal surgery).

Who refuted this theory was Donald McKenzie, a Canadian physician specializing in sports medicine, who promoted a study of women who underwent mastectomy (breast removal surgery). Dr. McKenzie observed positive effects related to sports in a pilot group of canoeists in the Dragon Boat sport.

“We met for the first time in January 1996. Don and his colleagues, Diana Jespersen and Sherri Magee, showed us a very short video of a team of women competing on a Dragon Boat in Hong Kong. These women were world champions and Don told us that we would be just like them” recalls Jane Frost, member of Abreast In A Boat – Side by side in a boat, the pilot group.

She confesses that the promise was met with skepticism by 24 breast cancer survivors who did not even know each other. “But we had faith. What could we miss? We were warned not to lift more than 5 kilos and avoid repetitive movements in the upper limbs, which meant avoiding Dragon Boat when knitting” says Jane.

They were between 32 and 64 years old. Of different bodies, professions, and athletic experiences. “We only had two things in common. First, we were afraid. Would we develop lymphedema? Would that hurt? Second, we were all bold”. She remembers a nurse named Edie, who every time she had to move a patient, remembered the doctor’s warning about lifting weight and Sandra, who was a canoeist and her doctor told her never to paddle again.

After a lot of training, Abreast in a Boat competed in an international festival. “We were winners just because we were there. We crossed the finish line first, cheered by our families and the public, but the best, without any lymphedema. There is a life after the diagnosis of breast cancer, and we prove it”.

The International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) currently has 225 teams in 26 countries on 5 continents. In November 2019, in Neuquén, Argentina, “Latinoamerica en Rosa 2019” (Latin America in Pink 2019), was held, which brought together 200 survivors from nine countries, in addition to Dr. McKenzie.

“We learn that we can”

Chilean Paula remembers the beginning of her group, Fortale-senos, when there were only four women, being a coach. “We started shyly, since none of us had experience in canoeing, but we had a great trainer. Most importantly, we learn that we can. When we got in the canoe, we forget about illness and fear. There, strength and hope appear”.

Today, there are 25 paddlers, celebrates Paula “It was not easy to make people understand that a woman who had breast cancer can be a sportswoman. Today, we just want our country to be painted pink and that in every corner, where there is a woman who survives breast cancer, that she can organize a paddlers group. They will know that they are not alone and that we are many”.

“Together, we can overcome the disease more easily and return to our normal lives”

In this pink wave, in April 2019, the Asociación de Bote Dragón de Panamá – Panamá Dragon Boat Association published an ad inviting cancer survivors to create a team. That was how Floribeth Campos got in touch with other survivors and started recruiting other women to join the team. The intention was to participate in the 5th Dragon Boat Festival of Panamá, in the newly created category for pink paddlers. In July, 15 survivors created the Pink Warriors. They debuted winning a gold medal in the 200 meters and two more silver medals in 500 and 1000 meters.

“Since then, we already have 28 paddlers. We seek to promote moral support in this difficult time, demonstrating that, together, we can overcome the disease more easily and return to our normal lives” says Floribeth.

Social inclusion in their communities to face cancer and to welcome women who face the disease is a maxim in and out of the water for all groups. The athletes participate intensively in meetings related to oncology, to raise awareness about the early diagnosis of breast cancer and life after the disease. Many help other patients who need economic support and work voluntarily in medical institutions. Others also promote support groups for people who have cancer, many of them still undergoing treatment.

“Medicine saved my life, sport saved my spirit”

Kim Bonomo, captain and founder of the Save Our Sisters (SOS) team from Miami says: “Since the founding of SOS in 2007, I have dedicated my life to making sure that more and more survivors are aware of this possibility”. Kim organized the 2014 participatory breast cancer festival in Sarasota, Florida with more than 3,000 participants.

Today, SOS has 50 members, 60% of whom are Latino women. In the USA, there are 60 Dragon Boat teams made up of breast cancer survivors. “We must continue to spread this message of hope. The big cities have their teams, but we need to get to the proportionally smaller ones and that’s the hard part” explains Kim, who shares a lesson. “Cancer changed my life. Doctors and medicine saved my life, but the sport, paddling on the Dragon Boat saved my spirit”.

“We do whatever it takes to keep paddling”

For many, keeping teams training is another challenge to be faced. Shannon Turgeon is a member of Breast Friends, Edmonton, Canada. The country has 57 teams of pink canoeists. In some smaller provincials, athletes travel to train. But the biggest difficulty is the climatic condition. “In most of our country, the climate restricts the practice of paddling in open water all year round, except for our teams off the coast of British Columbia. In Welland, Ontario and Montreal, Quebec, our rowers have access to indoor training facilities”, says Shannon.

His group had to build their own boat and train in a pool. “We do whatever it takes to keep paddling. You need to see the faces of the people taking the swimming class on the other side. We paddle in full force towards them, hoping that the ropes that hold us by the pool will not break.”

Green, yellow, and pink

Cleusa Alonso is Brazilian and was diagnosed in November 2011, when the family was moving to Argentina. “When I paddled for the first time on a Dragon Boat, I felt immense peace, I felt that my heart was in sync with the beating of the drum. This feeling that makes me work with passion to bring the Dragon Boat to many other women”.

She founded a team of green, yellow and, of course, pink survivors: Força Rosa Brasil (Brazil Pink Force). Welcomed by the Brazilian Canoe Confederation, the sport entered the institution’s statute, with the aim of promoting pink canoeing and holding participatory (non-competitive) festivals annually.

“When the storm passes, we are no longer the same person”

Mabel Toso, a member of the Rosa Fenix team, from Patagonia, Argentina, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. She celebrates that there are already 10 teams of the sport in her country and says that the Dragon Boat woke her from lethargy. “They say that when the storm passes, we are no longer the same person. We are people who, based on a diagnosis, bet on life, to be multiplying agents of a message of hope. On top of the canoe, we are just one. We overcome the past, live in the present and paddle for a future”.