Article in TREK Magazine, Fall 2007 by Marlisse Silver-Sweeney
LAST JUNE AT THE ALCAN DRAGON BOAT Festival in Vancouver, dozens of teams and bystanders lined up to watch one inspiring race. It wasn’t the finals, or the infamous “Guts and Glory” a-k dredge. Only one man was in this race, amongst the hundreds of women. And even though the participants had been training for months – years in some cases- no one particularly cared who won.
As the hundreds of survivors got off their boats from the Breast Cancer Survivors Race, they were followed by Don McKenzie MPE’72, MO’77, founder of the dragon boat breast cancer survivor movement and the only man allowed on board. A myriad of pink stormed out onto the dock and through the kilometer long arch way formed by the paddles of other team members. The carnations they had dropped into the water to commemorate the women who haven’t survived the disease floated in the distance, but the visceral cheers, laughter and tears of the women on the dock made it clear that they were winning their race against breast cancer.
Abreast in a Boat Team 2007
Margaret Hobson BEO’64, MEO’79, is a retired teacher and current president of the Abreast in a Boat Society.
Margaret joined Abreast in a Boat in 1999 after undergoing breast cancer treatment the previous year. “I could hardly wait to finish surgery and treatment so I could join the team” she says, matter-of-fact, as if it’s like waiting for a broken bone to heal. Paddling a dragon boat on False Creek however, isn’t a walk on the seawall.”
I thought I was going to die the first couple of practices. I was very fresh out of treatment and I had started going to the gym but it was not enough.
“Eventually though, the sore muscles and the strenuous exercise worked itself into a routine, and Margaret got more from her dragon boat team than the need for a hot bath twice week.” I never joined any support groups but I think Abreast in a Boat gives you one. If a person has a problem related to a medical condition there is someone on the boat who knows something about it.”
That someone is generally Dr. Don McKenzie. Dr. Don (as he’s called) started the first dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors in 1996. Abreast in a Boat was part of his plan to combat the idea that upper body exercise in breast cancer survivors would increase their chances of developing lymphedema. Besides lab and hospital-based studies, Dr. Don wanted to develop a “visible demonstration that women treated for breast cancer could do strenuous, physical upper body exercise and not develop lymphedema.”
The first team, made up of 24 breast cancer survivors, started his study. The women trained for two months in a gym before getting in the boat, and they were measured and tested. Starting slowly, they gradually built their strength and competed at the Alcan Dragon Boat Festival. Dr. Don’s hypothesis was correct. “People got stronger, people got fitter, and they showed that they didn’t develop lymphedema.
“But what happened afterwards was a huge surprise.” It got totally out of control,” he laughs. What started as a study of 24 women turned into a movement of thousands of women worldwide including teams in New York, Tasmania, Singapore, Poland, Dubai, Cape Town and now six teams in the Lower Mainland alone, with Dr. Don coaching a new novice team every year. “It went way beyond the physical things we were doing. When you push off from the dock at False Creek 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.”
And then there’s the sisterhood.
“We own a lot of pink clothing,” Marg says, and I remember the Ten Years Abreast Festival in Vancouver two years ago. Pink boas, wigs, shirts, shoes, dogs and husbands were littered across the park, proudly removing any possible stigma from the disease.
“There is a real bond among breast cancer survivors.” Once, Margaret tells me, she met a woman at a party and they started talking about Abreast in a Boat. When Margaret came home that night, there was an e-mail from that woman telling her that she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and hadn’t told anyone. She wanted to join the team.
“Just the fact that we’re out there, we’re paddling, we’re vibrant and enjoying life, I think it’s contagious. We certainly spread the word that there’s life after breast cancer.” And spread the word they have. These faces of the disease are consulted on any big decisions by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, they’re helping women around the world come to terms with a serious illness and they’re tough competitors. From a medical study to a world-wide movement, these women are Busting Out (a team in Ottawa), Bosom Buddies (a team in Nova Scotia), and are Paddling for Life (a team in Powell River). They’re simply inspirational.
Marlisse Silver-Sweeney is a 4th year student in the Creative Writing department – 2007
Story compiled by Michelle Hanton, National Coordinator, Dragons Abreast Australia in collaboration with Joanne Petterson
Jenny on the left, has the pink plait …since she had no hair of her own!
Most people involved in dragon boat racing are aware of the ‘Pink Ladies’ – the breast cancer dragon boaters that paddle their message of awareness around the globe.
This year, in Australia, we believe that Jenny Petterson, a BCS paddler, has made history, hers is a remarkable story of courage and determination! Jenny Petterson and her sister Joanne are twins.
Jenny on the left, has the pink plait …since she had
no hair of her own!
In March 1997 at the age of 35, Jenny (but not Joanne) was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. In November 1999 the cancer was found to have spread to 10 tumours across each of her lungs and a few years later a large tumour was found in her abdomen. She has undergone 3 operations including a mastectomy and removal of all lymph nodes in one arm, 2 six-month courses of chemotherapy; radiotherapy; several types of hormone treatments as well as a wide range of alternative therapies. She has been through the mill.
Jenny & Joanne were introduced to dragon boat a little over 3 years ago and were immediately hooked! They paddle together with both local NSW club Port Hacking and Dragons Abreast Sydney. Indeed they do just about everything together!
In January 2003 Jenny received a disappointing CT Scan and was told to wait 3 months for more scans for a comparison then a decision would be made whether or not she should commence a course of chemotherapy. This scan 3 months later showed a new growth in her abdomen and an increase in the size of the 3 remaining lung tumours.
During this 3-month period Jenny continued to paddle. In March 2003 she competed in the South Pacific Inaugural Breast Cancer Regatta in Auckland as part of the Australian Team, followed by the New Zealand Nationals in Wellington. Jenny then competed with Dragons Abreast in the Nationals in Adelaide in April 2003, whilst her sister Joanne paddle with the NSW State team and won a berth in Team Australia. On returning home Jenny received the news that she would need to undergo intensive chemotherapy and was later advised that she should not go to Shanghai (before the change to Poland because of SARS) for the World Championships for fear of infection.
From May to November 2003, Jenny took part in a clinical trial and the side effects of the chemotherapy meant she was not able to paddle. During this time Joanne was training with the Australian Women’s Team to compete in Poland, which Jenny would loved to have gone to watch but could not travel with such a low immune system. She suffered an infection and was hospitalised for 8 days and was discharged just in time to come out to the airport to farewell the Australian team for Poland.
Jenny came out to each of the 4 time trials the Australian Team had at Penrith and videoed all the races of the teams and got some great footage which was used to analyse the teams’ techniques. Looking back she says she doesn’t know how she was able to manage what she did when she was feeling so unwell.
When Jenny completed her chemotherapy in November 2003 she couldn’t get back into the boat quick enough and paddled in the Australian Masters in Canberra in November 2003. She took the paddling easy in the first 2 months following the chemotherapy while her body was recovering. The post-chemotherapy scan showed that the abdominal tumour has completely gone but the size of the lung tumours had only partially decreased.
Jenny attended a Dragon Boat Training Day on Australia Day this year and since then she has ramped up her training to 6 paddling sessions and 3 weights sessions at the gym each week. Her oncologist told her she can exercise as hard as she wants to now and the latest scan, three months after treatment has shown a significant decrease in the size of the lung tumours. Joanne now has her paddling and gym-buddy back!!
Jenny was back in the stroke seat for Dragons Abreast at Chinese New Year in February. She is feeling so strong now that she trialled for the NSW State Teams to compete at the 2004 Nationals in Perth and was placed 41 out of 60 women and earnt a place in the State Women’s B Team as well as a place in the Mixed Masters Team.
We are all so proud of Jenny, she is an absolute inspiration to us all, in particular the ladies in the Dragons Abreast Teams who can see just how strong, positive and motivated she is after all the setbacks she has had. Only a few months ago it would have been quite unbelievable to imagine she could have come this far in dragon boating after everything she has been through, particularly during last year. Jenny Petterson doesn’t need a medal, she is truly a champion, like every BCS, in every sense of the word but a ‘little bit of tin’ will be icing on the cake!
What a wonderful story of the human spirit striving to overcome the worse that life cam throw at it. Jenny’s story is typical of our BSC paddlers, so when they take a little longer to get to the Marshalling area to load their boats, take a bit more time to race down the course and disembark and maybe put the Regatta time table behind just a little; think of Jenny and all that she and the other BCS paddlers have gone through – just to be on the Start Line. Their Gold Medal is to be there – not the winning, the taking part.
I don’t think there are enough adjectives in the English language to describe the gamut of emotions that I experienced at Deas Slough on Sunday. This is my first season as a paddler, preceded by three years of ill health. Although I had been in the gym off and on since October, I started the season in lousy shape. But ever since I saw the video of Abreast in A Boat at the Cancer Agency last spring I have had a dream, an intense vision of myself on the water, paddling my heart out. My family was skeptical; “just watch me”, I proclaimed. The first month was a struggle to keep my spirits up. I was the worst paddler on the boat, always pulling my paddle during pieces – dogged by sharp shoulder pain and breathlessness. I often cried on the way home on Saturdays, thinking I would never make it. I feared coach Ruth would realize how hopeless I was and kick me off the team.
Captain Jenny assured me that she would never let that happen. Ruth never gave up on me. One practice she corrected me at least ten times, and I felt blessed! I took it as a sign that she thought there was hope for me. A very good friend said to me “don’t think of yourself as the worst on the boat, think of yourself as one of a small group of amazing women who had the courage and commitment to get out there and try it. You are a winner just by being on the boat!” I began to get stronger and better at paddling. I quickly grew to love my team of wonderful paddlers. Some nights being out on the water was so lovely it moved me to tears. When we began practicing race starts the adrenaline rush was orgasmic! Still, I didn’t think I would be ready to race this year. I told myself it was OK for me to be on a two year project. Kathy convinced me at the Keg one night that I really could race at Deas Slough and be OK. By then I had managed one three minute practice race without pulling my paddle. I reasoned that I could probably do one race, but not three, in a day. Ruth never said a word. So I didn’t either.
I arrived at Deas Slough on Sunday more excited than I was nervous for the first race. The warm up was fun, – we were all in jubilant moods it seemed. Ruth was amazing. She really wants us focused “in the boat” and she helps make that possible for us by being so intensely focused herself. She spoke with such authority and self confidence that all of our nerves and scattered energy evaporated and there we were: all together holding hands and visualizing ourselves going through a race. The most wonderful moment for me was leaving the dock to paddle out for the first race. Our wonderful drummer Donna called “PADDLES UP! And for the first time, as we drove our paddles into the water, we heard the boom, boom, boom, of the drum. My heart nearly burst through my chest I was so thrilled! The race was exciting and exhausting and was over in a flash, just like they told us it would be. During the race I followed Ruth’s advice and just thought about each stroke in the moment; this stroke, this stroke, this stroke. There was one brief moment when I suddenly thought, ” Oh my God, where the F—is the finish line”, but I caught myself and went back to “this stroke, this stroke, this stroke”. Later Ruth told me she had seen my brief faltering and quick recovery from her vantage point on shore. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t won, or even came second, we had raced a good race, and our coach was proud of us. I went on to race two more times that day. Each time was easier than the time before, each time I was more nervous than the time before. The last few strokes of the last race I tried harder than I have ever tried anything in my life. I finished the race in a heap in the boat and couldn’t pick up my paddle for several minutes. When we walked up from the dock we were greeted by a huge crowd of cheering happy faces, and an arch of paddles had been formed which we walked through. My dream had come true, my vision was a reality. I kept saying to myself “you did it gal, you really did it!” We regrouped and Ruth was so happy with us, and we were all tired and proud. It took an hour before the tears stopped trickling from the corner of my eyes. I really needed to howl, sob, shout for joy, and release all the excitement, fear, and exaltation damned up inside me. What a day! What a life!
Juanita Peglar, Cheryl Watson, Linda Acosta and Deb Thiessen – September 2002
Have you heard the saying “All roads lead to Rome”? Well we never imagined that the rocky road of breast cancer would lead us there!
We four represented Abreast in a Boat at the World Club Crew Championships in Rome, Italy. Known as “Internationally Abreast” our team was comprised of women, all breast cancer survivors, from Australia and Canada. The two other breast cancer boats there were from Philadelphia, (U.S.A.) and Dragons Abreast (South Australia). Together we took our message of hope, support, and friendship to the women of Italy. We were proud to be the example that women with breast cancer can live full and active lives.
Michelle Hanton, our leader and manager from Australia, had contacted Murray Cobban, the Australian Ambassador, to let him know of our arrival in Rome. As a result we were invited to a reception at the Ambassador’s residence where we met with the media, physicians, dignitaries and representatives from next year’s World Championships in Shanghai. We also met the ambassador’s wife, who had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and was commencing chemotherapy the week we were in Rome. Everyone there was extremely supportive and aided in getting out our message of hope.
Michelle never missed an opportunity to get our message of hope out, nor did she ever miss a photo op or media op. Before our first race she arranged for our team to be blessed by Cambodian Monks. It was a very spiritual chant that left us feeling empowered and very strong.
After one of our first races an Italian lady named Orlanda Cappelli spoke with Linda and asked if she could race with our team. She is a breast cancer survivor who paddles with a mixed team. Linda translated Orlanda’s request and by the next race she had become our drummer and remained so for the next few races. She is now very eager to start a breast cancer survivor team in Italy!
For the first time ever a breast cancer team paddled in a 2000m race. No, we didn’t place in the top three but the love, support and cheering that we received from the shore line put us first place in the hearts of everyone there. The noise from the crowd was almost deafening and it was very emotional for us. Our final race on Sunday was again very emotional! Our Italian friend Orlanda arranged for roses and all of the breast cancer boats came together to toss the flowers into the water. Again the crowd was awesome and this time very quiet as we took a minute of silence to remember the women who were no longer with us and, as well, those women and their families who are now fighting breast cancer.
During the three days of racing there was a documentary crew who followed us and filmed us at every turn. The documentary should air sometime in the late fall on the Womens’ Network. We will keep you posted on the date.
How did we do? We were successful! At the spectacular opening ceremonies it was announced that the first Italian breast cancer survivor team would be formed this year in Rome. It was also announced that that boat would attend and race at the Worlds in Shanghai. So next year will be the first time that a breast cancer dragon boat team has ever raced in Asia. We raised awareness as we were visible anywhere we stood in our hot pink race shirts. We were definitely full of life, we definitely kept up with the Australian women, and we definitely brought home medals! Two Bronze, count ’em, two! Life, indeed, is very full and active! We feel very proud and privileged to have represented Abreast In A Boat and thank you all for giving us this opportunity of a lifetime.
Juanita Peglar, Cheryl Watson, Linda Acosta and Deb Thiessen – September 2002
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 1996, my first reaction was one of terror and panic. I remember thinking that anyone who I had known with cancer, family members and friends had all died. No one in my family spoke about cancer openly. Then, as I was quickly thrown into the treatment phase, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, it seemed that as long as something was being done, I would likely be “OK”. My expectation was that I would have a sense of relief and elation when I finished treatment. But instead of relief I felt only fear, agitation and a loss of control.
As a Physiotherapist, I could not deny the importance of exercise in my recovery but I was being very cautious and inconsistent with my return to activity. I regained some sense of control from participating in exercise at the local gym but it was a lonely process and it was difficult to stay motivated. Then I heard of a group of breast cancer survivors who paddled, and who were looking for more women to join them. They called themselves Abreast In A Boat.
My first season was initially frightening. Would I measure up? Would this be fun? Who would I meet? Everyone seemed nice enough, but still I worried. It was all a bit overwhelming. I kept fairly quiet, did what I was told, worked hard in the gym and actually learned to paddle in a dragon boat. It was all very new to me. I had never been to a dragon boat festival, never paddled, so that in itself was an adventure.
I slowly regained some of the emotional strength I had lost, started feeling physically more energized and was certainly becoming more fit.
By the end of my first festival, I felt proud of my accomplishments, and it wasn’t so much about the racing, (although that part of it was quite a rush!) but for the first time in awhile, I felt elated as well as relieved. I was beginning to have some fun, I was active and healthy and starting to live my life again!
I had become a part of a very visual symbol of hope, showing a different face of cancer, encouraging those living with this disease that they can find ways of being active, having fun and taking hold of their lives again.
So what is it about dragon boating that is so life giving?
There is no doubt that being involved in any physical activity with a group of people who have had similar experiences in life, is very healing. It also does make a difference to be fit and healthy.
Beyond these facts, could it be that it provides a way to challenge and recharge our bodies in a safe and positive environment? There is certainly a sense of trust and feeling of safety within this group.
Does it give us a positive way to channel any anger, fear and frustration?
It is great to be able to leave my troubles on the dock before every practice.
Does it give us some sense of control or even one of peace?
Being on the water can certainly be a very serene and magical experience.
But try to think of any other sport or activity where there is really no distinction of importance between participants, where everyone strives to do the same thing at the same time, where you are in such close proximity with no personal space … all the time! This physical closeness can certainly be challenging but it can also be energizing and when it works, it’s magic! Imagine being able to raise a boat up in the water and feel it fly, and knowing that it happened only because everyone was so connected. It is very unique and very special.
As life moved along I got better and busier with work, with parenting and with my paddling. After four years I thought about giving the paddling a break. So one evening while sitting around the supper table, I announced my plans. My husband and daughters were taken aback and told me I couldn’t possibly give up paddling. I was puzzled by their strong reactions. After several minutes, they confessed that they were afraid for me. They told me that dragon boating had given my daughters back their mom and given my husband back his partner. I realized that I would miss paddling too much and that it also was very important for my family to see me having fun and living the best I can.
Through my own adventures with Abreast In A Boat, I have learned that life is for living, not just surviving. I credit all the people involved with Abreast In A Boat and other breast cancer organizations, for saving my sanity and for helping me to see that I can live a great life whether it is for a few years or 40.
The dragon boating experience has given many of us the strength and courage to try new things and to do them well. It has given me the opportunity to share this experience with other women and men over the world. That has been both a privilege and a gift. I know that I have always had the strength to survive for the time that I do have, but I found the courage to live my life fully on those waters of False Creek in Vancouver.