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Dragon Boats Strike Chord with Breast Cancer Survivors

The Gathering Place DragonFlys Lifejacket

With thousands of teams all around the world, dragon boat racing has become a fast-growing sport.  It’s also popular in the US and Canada, with festivals and races in places like Cleveland, Vancouver, and Buffalo.  There’s a surprising bond with one group in particular – cancer survivors.

The boats are 47 feet long.  They look like canoes, but with large dragon heads and tails. At a recent event in Cleveland, 20 paddlers sat in rows of 2 lining the boat, while one person steered and another set the pace on a drum.

Dragon boat racing originated in China over 2000 years ago, but the sport has been developing a following in North America since the 1980s.  U.S. Dragon Boat Federation president Connie Flesuras says the sport’s appeal comes from the teamwork it requires.

“We are the only sport that we know of where 20 people do exactly the same thing at exactly the same time,” said Flesuras.

Dragon boat racing is also intensely athletic and competitive, working the upper body to paddle sprint-length distances – 200, 500, or 1000 meters.

That’s what appeals to Ketti Finneran.  She’s part of The Gathering Place DragonFlys, a Cleveland team of cancer survivors.

“Sometimes after people have cancer, they feel a little bit like maybe their body has failed them,” said Finneran.  “This is a way to come back strong and do it in a competitive way and a social way.”

In 1996, a Canadian oncologist named Don McKenzie published a report detailing the experiences of Abreast in a Boat, a team of breast cancer survivors.  McKenzie’s team challenged the conventional wisdom.

“We were really challenging a myth. You know, we were saying OK - the thinking is that if you do exercise, upper extremity exercise, even such things as playing golf was sort of frowned upon,” said McKenzie.

The worry was that survivors might develop lymphedema, a major swelling of the arms.

But McKenzie found that the sport and physical exercise in general was a great way for survivors to get their strength back while gaining a sense of community.  “It lowers the risk of recurrence, greatly lowers the risk of developing things like lymphedema,” said Mckenzie.  “It improves quality of life and it also improves survival in a lot of people.”

Ann Marie Grossman is on the DragonFlys team too. She says being around other survivors helps on days when things get tough.  “I would come down here feeling weak and down, and once I got on the boat with everybody else, all of the sudden that energy came through and you forget about how you feel,” said Grossman.

The Dragonflys paddle on the Cuyahoga River and compete at the annual Cleveland Festival.  The team is made up of survivors and members range in age from 35 to 70.  Sally Wilson, another DragonFly, was approached to join the team while she was still in treatment in 2011.  She’s been paddling ever since.

“All the chemicals that have been put in your body, everything you’ve been through will come out via exercise,” said Wilson.  “That’s what I liked about it. It really makes you sweat!”

There are more than 170 breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams around the world. And more than 40 are in the U.S.

Despite that base of support, McKenzie says he still faces opposition when helping new teams get started.  This month, McKenzie heads to Brazil and Argentina to speak with medical professionals there. His theory that exercise is positive for breast cancer survivors has been supported over the years by researchers from Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.

Reporter/producer Elizabeth Miller joined ideastream after a stint at NPR headquarters in Washington D.C., where she served as an intern on the National Desk, pitching stories about everything from a gentrified Brooklyn deli to an app for lost dogs. Before that, she covered weekend news at WAKR in Akron and interned at WCBE, a Columbus NPR affiliate. Elizabeth grew up in Columbus before moving north to attend Baldwin Wallace, where she graduated with a degree in broadcasting and mass communications.
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