On June 3, 2012, I found myself just outside London, standing knee deep in the Thames. Around me, an assortment of man-powered vessels were organizing themselves on the water, getting ready to be part of the Queen’s Flotilla. This flotilla was to be a perfectly choreographed parade of a thousand boats making there way down the Thames in celebration of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. It was a sight to see, history in the making, and I was a part of it.
What made the day even more amazing for me was the realization that I was part of this celebration because I had had breast cancer. I was there with Abreast From the West, a dragon boat team made up of breast cancer survivors from the Lower Mainland who ranged in age from 44 to 70. We were not your typical athletes but we were strong women who knew that if we could beat breast cancer then we could paddle 26 kilometers down the Thames.
October 2005 – I had just turned 38 when I received the news that I had breast cancer. It was a long year of treatment – surgery, chemotherapy, radiation – but an even longer process of recovery. During this time of recovery, I was directed towards a group of breast cancer survivors who dragon boat on a team called Abreast in a Boat. These women paddle to raise breast cancer awareness; to show women that they can still have full and active lives after a breast cancer diagnosis; but also to prove to themselves that they are as strong as they push themselves to be.
When I started paddling with Abreast in a Boat in the spring of 2007, I was terrified. No one would have ever referred to me as an athlete, I had avoided team sports as much as I could my whole life, and, to be honest, I was afraid of falling out of the boat. I was placed in a novice crew. None of us had done this before and we were all learning together. Learning how to paddle is a process but with wonderful coaching, my crew and I began to get the hang of it. As the weeks went by, I grew stronger and more sure of what I was doing. But I also found myself as part of a unique sisterhood. These women knew what I had been through, knew how I felt.
I paddled in the spring of 2008 and again in 2009 but then life got in the way and I missed the next two seasons. My focus turned to my family and raising my three children.
In February, when I heard about the boat going to London, I jumped on the chance to be a part of it. What an opportunity I was being offered and all because I had had breast cancer. I also signed up again with Abreast in a Boat. Coming back to paddling, I quickly remembered how much I loved it and how much I had missed the support of the women I paddled with.
Because of dragon boating, I am stronger and healthier than I have ever been. My circle of friends grows every year as I paddle with different women. I am amazed by the strength of the women around me – a teammate who had to battle breast cancer in her early thirties and another who decided to start paddling at 80.
When I look at these women, I see my future and I see many years of paddling ahead of me.
If you know someone who has had breast cancer, mention my story to them. Encourage them to look us up and maybe even give it a try. They aren’t too young or too old. Breast cancer isn’t picky when it comes to age and neither are we.
“In the boat we…paddle together…support each other…learn from one another…enjoy competition…overcome fear…encourage others…make true friends…take pride in our accomplishments…break the silence of cancer…” (Abreast in a Boat website)
“When you push off from the dock…we’re all in the same boat. This isn’t about cancer anymore. It’s about exercise and health and the rest of your life. When we push off we’re paddling away from breast cancer.” (Dr. Don McKenzie, Founder, Abreast in a Boat)