What do dragon boat racing and breast cancer have in common? Well, just that this ancient Chinese sport and survivors of the disease have combined to make a big splash across the world.
According to an old Chinese legend, during the country's Warring State period (481-221 BC) there lived a poet named Qu Yuan, who was a trusted friend and advisor to the King of Chu. One day Qu gave the King some advice, which so upset the King that he banished the bard to a remote area of southern China. Wrenched from his roots, Qu wandered the countryside in despair. And when he learnt that his beloved homeland had fallen into enemy hands, he threw himself into the Miluo River.
News of Qu Yuan's suicide spread and hundreds of fisherfolk raced out in their boats to save the poet. They beat their drums and splashed their paddles on the water to ward off the water dragons and keep them from eating his body. In what has now become an annual ritual in China, fisherfolk re-enact the attempt to save the poet and keep the water dragons at bay.
The vivid image evoked by this legend enthralled breast cancer survivors in Canada, who came up with their own modern version of dragon boating in an attempt to slay their personal dragons. They launched 'Dragons Abreast', the first breast cancer dragon boat team, in Toronto in 1997 - a year after a research experiment by Dr Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia (UBC).
McKenzie wanted to dispel the myth that repetitive upper body exercise in women treated for breast cancer encourages lymphedema, a swelling of the arm and chest area that may develop anytime after lymph node surgery and radiation treatment. The physician believed that if women followed a special exercise and training programme, there would be no increased risk of lymphedema.
His theory was proven correct. No new cases of lymphedema occurred and none of the existing cases became worse. His medical team led a six-week dry-land training programme for breast cancer survivors to prepare them for the strenuous upper body demands of dragon boat racing. A dragon boat has a dragonhead and tail and carries 22 people, including a drummer, who sits up front to keep the paddlers in time, and a steer-person, who stands at the back.
What began as a medical study involving one crew of 25 women has today diversified into over 40 teams across Canada alone. The sport has also gained popularity among breast cancer survivors in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.
"The whole purpose of our team is to demonstrate that there is life after breast cancer," says Eleanor Neilson, Co-founder of Dragons Abreast. A retired nurse, Eleanor was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer in 1989. She was a Reach to Recovery peer support volunteer for 12 years and conducted volunteer training for the Canadian Cancer Society for three years.
It all began as an experiment, narrates Eleanor. "Women who've been treated for breast cancer are often told to avoid strenuous upper body exercise for fear of producing lymphedema. But there wasn't much research done to back up this advice, and McKenzie proved otherwise."
The sport is actually very symbolic, she explains. "The western concept of a dragon is that of a foe. The eastern concept sees the dragon as a bringer of good things. We talk of dragon boating as both beating the dragon - the cancer we've suffered, and riding the dragon - overcoming the disease."
Eleanor was in this picturesque coastal Canadian city in Nova Scotia region to demonstrate and organize dragon boat rides, as part of the recent Fourth World Conference on Breast Cancer held here (June 8-12, 2005). The conference, organized by the Canada-based World Conference on Breast Cancer Foundation, brought together over 650 delegates from more than 60 countries.
Debbie Pottie, a dragon boater for almost six years, says the benefits of the sport go beyond physical fitness. "There is a sense of freedom. When you're in the boat, you don't think about breast cancer." Debbie, a member of the Bosom Buddies Dragon Boat team from Nova Scotia, says that after breast cancer treatments, patients not only have to heal physically, but also mentally. The camaraderie and life-long friendships that are made within and among the different teams offer support and fun to everybody who takes part.
The beauty of dragon boat racing is the team spirit that emerges and the positive energy levels attained, feels Jacquie Kolber, Chairperson of Dragons Abreast, Toronto. "Our team encourages women to work out and stay fit, though it is not a condition to joining our team." The zeal and efforts of her paddlers were richly rewarded when the team won the 250-metre event against able-bodied and non-breast cancer survivors in the Philadelphia dragon boat races in 2001.
"A group of us also went to Shanghai last year, where we competed against teams from the US, Australia and New Zealand. We returned home with the Silver and Bronze medals," she adds.
Doris Rossi of Thunderbay in Northwest Ontario, a survivor for 10 years, has been paddling for six years now. "I formulated our team from Thunderbay from within members of the local breast cancer support group," she says. Like many others before her, she put together her dragon boat survival team to create awareness about the disease and reassure women that they could live healthy and productive lives even after surviving the physical and mental scars of breast cancer.
It is in these boats, which are each almost 12 metres long, that Debbie says she discovered that there is life after breast cancer. "Our team members' ages range from 30 to 73 years, but we feel 15 when we're in the boat," she quips.