Abreast in a Dragon Boat

Abreast in a Dragon Boat

From Chicken Soup for the Breast Cancer Survivor's Soul

Abreast in a Dragon Boat

I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.

Jimmy Dean

In the fall of 1994, I had surgery and radiation for what I jokingly referred to as a “mild” case of breast cancer— stage I. As a professor of physical therapy, I was acutely aware of the risk of lymphedema, an irreversible, dreaded swelling of the surgical-side arm. In fact, my own physical therapist, who specializes in treating women with breast cancer, chastised me for raking leaves one beautiful autumn day.

“Repetitive upper body activities,” she warned, “could bring on lymphedema.”

I started to read all I could about lymphedema, which can be caused by lymph-node removal, radiation and obesity, and I realized that even in the medical literature there are a number of unverified assertions. Women are warned never to carry a purse on their involved shoulder and to avoid strenuous exercise with the affected arm for the rest of their lives. For the rest of their lives! As a long-time jogger and recreational soccer player, I was irked by the presumed need to avoid strenuous exercise.

Luckily, one of my colleagues at the University of British Columbia, Don McKenzie, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of sports medicine and exercise physiology, set out to challenge that myth. He organized twenty-four breast-cancer survivors into a dragon-boat racing team.

Dragon-boat racing is a competitive and recreational sport developed centuries ago in China. It involves eighteen to twenty paddlers who propel a forty to sixty foot wooden boat along a 500 to 650 meter course. It’s a strenuous and repetitive upper body sport—just the type of exercise my physical therapist warned me against! (I took a certain mischievous pleasure in disobeying her orders, but you should always check with your doctor before undertaking an exercise program).

To prepare for on-water training, Dr. McKenzie and the other coaches developed a three-pronged, land-based training program, involving stretching exercises, three twenty to thirty minute aerobic workouts a week, and weightlifting to strengthen our upper arm and back muscles. I loved the training and the weekly regimen. I also loved my teammates—breast-cancer survivors all. Soon we developed friendships that endured both on and off the water.

Our team, Abreast in a Boat, has competed in dragon-boat festivals in Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, Portland and Wellington, New Zealand, and it has fostered the formation of more than 100 other breast-cancer teams around the world. Not one of the original members has developed lymphedema, nor did the condition worsen for the two members who had pre-existing swelling. More significantly, many of the women from the team became important role models for me.

Three months after competing in New Zealand, I was diagnosed with a second primary tumor in the opposite breast. Two of my teammates accompanied me to hear the worrisome initial diagnostic news from my surgeon: I had stage IIB. When I was deciding whether to have a bilateral mastectomy in June 1998, teammates who had been through the procedure bared their breasts (reconstructed and otherwise) to help me make my decision. During the dozen chemo sessions, at least one teammate was there with me, as a role model and supporter.

Although I had to sit out for my year of treatment and six months afterward, I began training and competing again in the spring of 2000. The women from my team, their partners and kids have become family to me. They have enriched my life in unexpected ways—inviting me to join their families for Christmas when I was too immune-compromised from chemo to fly home to my own, and serenading 150 guests at my fiftieth birthday party with songs they wrote about me and dragon-boat racing. I am so grateful for their ongoing love and support. After all, as one of my teammates said, “We’re all in the same boat!”

Susan R. Harris
As previously appeared in
Mamm Magazine

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