It can be hard to find words to describe the feeling that comes from sharing a boat with so many inspirational paddlers. But we asked three of our long-time members to try. Here are their stories.
There’s no cure for lymphedema*. It can be very, very uncomfortable. Some days my arm feels very, very heavy. I try to get as much dragon boating in as I can. It makes me feel better all over, but it really makes my arm feel better.
I wear my compression sleeves 12 hours a day. The only time I didn’t was at a wedding this summer in Ontario when it was nearly 40 degrees – just too hot. Luckily, there aren’t so many people like me – having it in both arms.
After my surgery, I did the post-op exercises but probably didn’t do enough – not moving my arms as much as I should have. I was so afraid to move my arms the way I should. I was told I would never be able to do gardening and all sorts of stuff. That isn’t the right information. Possibly, I wouldn’t have been so affected if I hadn’t limited my movement.
For the first couple of years after my surgery, even with the compression sleeve, my arms kept getting bigger, bit-by-bit. The hospital measured my arms every six months, so I knew exactly how much they were increasing. Then I heard about dragon boating. In the spring of 2008, I joined the team and my arms have stopped getting bigger since then. Dragon boating has really helped. In fact, sometimes after practice or after a race, my arms actually decrease in size to the point where the sleeves get loose and fall down. Once when they fell down twice during a practice, team members joked ‘your lymphedema is cured!’
When our coach had those sessions on Thursday nights when we had to work really, really hard, I had the best sleeps of my life. On a timing drill, when we had to pause the oar in the air before hitting the water, my arm felt really good. At the festival we attended this summer in Peterborough, with six races in one day, my arms felt really, really good. Who knows how much of it is psychological. I do feel better after I’m out there. That mixture of friendship and exercise, it always makes me feel better.
*Some or all of the lymph nodes in the underarm are removed during breast cancer surgery to determine if the cancer has spread, and if so, to what extent. This helps determine what further treatment is needed. Radiation is an often-used treatment. Both can lead to lymphedema, a chronic swelling of the arm. A compression sleeve can help to keep the swelling down. Lymphedema is very uncomfortable and can lead to an uncontrolled infection in the affected limb. Survivors were typically told to limit upper body exercise. In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie in Vancouver studied the effects of vigorous upper body exercise on lymphedema and found dragon boating helpful in prevention and relief of symptoms. The results were so positive that breast cancer survivors worldwide have enthusiastically embraced the sport.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought my life was ending. And until I joined dragon boating, I was essentially in a survivor mode. Now, I’m ready to embrace life, where before I was just surviving it.
I’m not a group person. I’ve always been very much a loner. Joining was a huge stretch for me. But I’ve found so much support and inspiration in the boat, it motivates me to be a better person and a better dragon. It’s inspired me to run and go to the gym. I feel healthier now because I’m more physically fit. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. You feel healthier so you eat better too. I’m looking forward to boot camp and doing some cross-training this winter, like snow shoeing, so when I get back in the boat, I’ll be in the best condition I can be.
The thing about dragon boating is that there’s so much inspiration in the boat. You can’t do it alone. To get that boat to move, you have to do it together. It’s sort of a metaphor for life. We have something going on here that’s extraordinary – on so many levels.
When you’re paddling and your paddle grabs the water and you literally lift the boat out of the water and it glides, the moving is part of the exhilaration. When you do it, it’s phenomenal. It’s a passion for me. I feel so strongly about what we’re doing out there. Words are just inadequate.
The passion I feel about dragon boating is the passion I want to inspire in the kids I teach. I don’t want them to go through life without feeling a passion for what they’re doing.
After spending a year and a half to build a dragon boat, a broken arm from a fall on slippery rocks in Swift Current wasn’t going to keep Marie Elliott from participating in the Awakening the Dragon launch ceremony. In fact, she was in the first boatload (even though she wasn’t able to paddle) as the beautifully crafted wooden boat pulled away from the dock on Octagon Pond that sunny Saturday in September of 2008.
Marie was one of the over 50 breast cancer survivors who built the dragon boat. “I didn’t know much about tools or know anything about boat building, but when I heard a group of women were planning to build a dragon boat, I got interested,” Marie remembers. “After the first workshop, I was hooked and wanted to learn everything I could.”
For 18 months, they met three nights a week and Sunday afternoons under the tutelage of naval architect Bruce Whitelaw.
“We started with drawings on paper and piles of wood and after several months, it started to take shape. We learned how to use a variety of tools ranging from planes to band saws and circular saws,” Marie explains.
After completing the keel, the builders proudly etched their names into it. Marie says the whole experience was very therapeutic and she has formed lifelong bonds with her teammates. “We came together with a common bond; we were all breast cancer survivors and we all wanted to work together to conquer the dragon.”
Since then, Marie and the team have travelled to three dragon boat festivals. She hopes it won’t be long before a festival will be hosted in Paradise. Marie says she would highly recommend dragon boating to other breast cancer survivors as it truly changed her life.
Marie’s husband Neil has been by her side every step of the way. He has even become an integral part of the team by furnishing and operating the support boat at many practice sessions.
“We plan to work this winter on dragon heads and tails and a ceremonial drum to be used when we race. We’ve become accomplished builders, artisans, and paddlers and have discovered that life can be good, even after breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.”
Breast cancer took them from us, but we will always treasure the memory of our strong and brave Avalon Dragons:
Genevieve "Gen" Marie Bishop - age 67 - May 14, 2022
Diane Brennan-Campbell - age 62 - October 31, 2018
Joanie Elizabeth Bruce - age 67 - July 7, 2016
Linda Gail Noah - age 60 - Feb 21, 2013
Ruby Cook - age 67 - January 22 2012
Donna Marie Howell - age 53 - Sept 25, 2009