The ancient Chinese sport of Dragon Boating is like canoeing -- but in huge boats painted with colorful scales. The activity is easy to learn, great exercise and provides powerful camaraderie.
So powerful, in fact, that many cancer survivors are picking up paddles.
“Our last race was super! It was the best of the season! I was so proud of so many people in the boat” says Cathy Freese, co-captain of Live, Love, Survive -- a team of cancer survivors and their caregivers based in Foster City. Many of the women are breast cancer survivors.
Freese and her fellow rowers were among the more than 40,000 people present at this year's Dragon Boat Festival on Treasure Island. The annual event presents a colorful scene: People circle up in life vests to stretch. There’s a lot of laughter and a lot of temporary tattoos. Out on the water, drummers keep time for the athletes. Vibrantly painted dragon heads adorn the front of each vessel.
“We are out there to show that there is life after cancer and chemo and radiation and surgery” says Freese. She joined less than a year after finishing chemo. Freese found the team after a woman from her gym invited her to practice with the team.
Freese says the team doesn’t like to dwell on cancer. But dragon boating does provide a space for shared experience. “The support we get, just when we’re out on the boat talking and somebody says something about ‘oh how are you doing on your tamoxifen’, or whatever we’re going through," Freese says. "Whether it be the side effects of chemo five years later or last week.”
Some people at the event say fighting cancer can be an isolating experience, so joining a team like this gives them an opportunity to find friends with a common story. It’s also an easy sport to learn. Festival organizers say you can learn the basics in under an hour.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for people who feel isolated that they come out and practice with us,” says Live, Love, Survive coach Akim Karger.
The sport requires teammates to paddle in unison, which means there are no individual stars. The sport doesn’t have “quarterbacks”.
“It’s all about working with other people and you actually have a good chance to get to know people," Karger says. "There are so many opportunities to socialize."
Back in the 1990s, Canadian doctor, Donald McKenzie, began advocating for breast cancer survivors to join dragon boat teams. He touted the exercise and camaraderie. But survivors still do need to be careful out there on the water. To reduce the risk of swelling and blockage, paddlers often use the muscles on their less-affected side to do most of the work.
“We take a lot more breaks, and we always bring water,” says Karger. “Many people in the club have to be careful of sun also.”
Live, Love, Survive isn’t the only team with cancer survivors. You can find them in many boats at the festival. Sharon Tong Robinson finished chemotherapy seven years ago and now rows for the Oyster Point Dragons, based in South San Francisco.
“My body was pretty beaten up from the chemo and radiation treatment," Robinson says. "And so I was able rebuild my strength. Physically and mentally I am a completely a different person today. I am definitely reborn."
Robinson says she went from identifying as a patient to an athlete. Now she can even compete alongside her kids.
Dragon boating has attracted enough breast cancer survivors that they are able to organize their own competitions.
“At some of the regattas there is a memorial paddle," Freese says. "It’s very moving. They have all of the survivors go out in boats and row into a formation. As we break apart we usually throw pink flowers into the water and remember all of our friends that didn’t make it. And how happy we are to be there.”