Three Abreast In A Boat, In Their Own Words

By John Endo Greenaway, Printed in the Japanese Canadian Citizens’ Association – March 2011 Bulletin


Esther Matsubuchi, Patricia Tanaka and Vivian Omori

Esther, you were a member of the first team in 1996, which was an experiment, really. I’m sure you had no idea that it would grow into what it has today. Tell me about the experience.

Esther Matsubuchi: When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, the rate of breast cancer in women was 1 in 9. I felt strong and hoped that I would save nine women from getting this disease. For me, breast cancer had been synonymous with lymphodema. A friend’s mother down the street had it and it was a real handicap: all her clothes had to be remade to fit her arm. I’ve always been an avid gardener, but when diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew I had to stop because even raking was too risky a motion for a breast cancer survivor. Gardening could also involve thorn pricks from roses, which could lead to infection, which could lead to lymphodema. I was so happy that a fuchsia rose was developed by Brad of Select Roses of Langley and named in honour of AIAB in 2009:
“Fortitude Rose.” I immediately bought one to plant front and centre in my garden.

The first team was an experiment to see if repetitive upper body exercising would lead to lymphodema. Repetitive motions were discouraged in those days: even carrying a shoulder bag on the affected side was taboo. I had nothing to lose and had a good feeling about joining the 1996 dragon boat experiment. I had envied others who paddled and at last one of my dreams would come true. At least after this experiment, the newly-diagnosed women wouldn’t even have to think about any further physical limitations, as we did before 1996.

At our first meeting, we were in awed disbelief as Dr. McKenzie showed a video demonstrating dragon boating. Later, we were told it was in slow-motion. During my first dragon boat race, I thought I was going to die. It was a 650 m race and we had never practised a race that long before. I kept paddling, but in my mind, it was going to be my last race. Of course, since then, I’ve changed my mind.

Patricia and Vivian, can you talk a little about the experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer – the thoughts and feelings you went through.

Patricia Tanaka: Initially there is shock, then numbness and suddenly huge decisions to make in a very short time. You try to understand all the technical medical implications about stage of the disease, percentages of survival, cure rates, courses of treatment while the refrain of “Cancer, I have Cancer” runs in your head. And you think about how your spouse and your family will feel – how terrible it will be for them to hear the diagnosis. And how will you tell your friends and colleagues?

Vivian Omori: It wasn’t an absolute shock since my younger sister was diagnosed five months prior – but still unexpected. The realization that living to an old age (my mother is 92) was likely not in my future was like getting smacked in the face. I was just determined to get through the treatments. I told the oncologist that if I had to get cancer, breast cancer was the one to get because there was so much research and money poured into treatments and finding a cure.

Abreast In A Boat is really about much more than paddling, isn’t it?

PT: It has meant meeting and becoming friends with people who expand your horizons and experiences. It has meant becoming competitive in a sport when you previously never felt the need to be part of an athletic group. It has also provided me with the opportunity to work with this amazing group of women in our race against breast cancer.

What is your favourite dragon boat memory?

PT: There are so many great memories – probably one of the best was winning a bronze medal in my first regatta – the huge Vancouver Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan) International Dragon Boat Festival back in 1999.

VO: My first year, my son and daughter came to watch the Breast Cancer race at the Women’s Regatta. It was about five months after my treatments were completed. My crew didn’t win but the kids were proud of me. I think it helped to show them that I wasn’t a fragile patient anymore.

Where is your favourite place to paddle?

PT: While all of the five venues (Barnet Marine Park, Deas Slough, False Creek, Fort Langley and Richmond) are wonderful places to paddle, my favourite is Barnet Marine Park on Burrard Inlet. There are eagles, seals, ducks, and herons that share the water with you as well as the beauty of the Inlet.

VO: The Deas Slough. It’s a calm and beautiful venue with herons, eagles and seals. It also has a pub close by.

EM: My favourite place to paddle is False Creek. The water is usually ideal, and Granville Island is a great place to be after practices. They even give us free parking on our practice days. Abreast In A Boat is very welcomed there.

It looks like a pretty safe sport, but like any water sport there must be an element of danger. Have you had any close calls over the years?

PT: There are the occasional collisions of boats during races as it is relatively easy to veer off course in races or rough water. However no one I know has ever been injured even when knocked overboard.

A few years ago paddling in Burrard Inlet our boat was swamped by a speeding tugboat’s wake. The waves came over our bow and knocked the drummer off her perch and the front two paddlers were pushed back off their seats. While we continued to paddle and bail the boat sank and we ended up floating around the boat which slowly overturned. There is a reason why we all wear life vests while on the boats even on the calmest sunniest days. One paddler was able to call for help with her cell phone while floating on her back. We nicknamed her “Otter”. It took a while to be rescued so we were a bit concerned for some of our crewmates who were not quite as robust.

EM: Dragon boating in Vancouver is safe, but in New Zealand, the boats are constructed differently, and tip very easily. In Wellington, at the international regatta, our boat capsized. When I saw the newspaper pictures of us in the water, I laughed as I noticed my AIAB cap was still on. The water was really choppy, and the winds were very strong. I heard the loudspeakers say “beware of sharks” and the commentator pointed them out!

How do you welcome new members?

PT: We welcome novices at a special introductory meeting and they are also invited to paddle with some experienced members to get a feel for the boat and teamwork. Novices are also given special recognition at AIAB events and post a diary of their season on the website. Novices often have “buddies” who they can talk to at any time about paddling and their cancer experience.

EM: I’m entering my 16th year and I have been instrumental in finding new members since I joined AIAB. When I hear about a new cancer person I tell them about our special boat. I even keep in touch with a woman who was in depression, but who came out of it after associating with our group.
I get a strong feeling that much of the appeal of dragon boating is the camaraderie and the teamwork.

VO: When we’re practicing, it’s a lot of work and fun times. We tend to laugh a lot even though the coaches are very serious about the practices. They are also very safety-conscious so even if I don’t swim, I’ve never had occasion to be afraid. When we are in a race, we paddle hard and strive to keep in time as getting the boat moving is really dependant on everybody being in sync.

PT: There is something very healing being out on the water working together with others who have survived the same frightening and dreaded disease. It is empowering to get the boat up and moving and surging through the waves regardless of the weather.

Breast cancer can occur in men, thought it is much rarer. Have you given thought to having men join the team?

VO: The only criteria for joining AIAB is that you’re able to keep fit and you are a breast cancer survivor. The gender issue has never been raised and we often speculate when/if we’ll have a male paddler join us.

PT: So far our efforts to recruit haven’t been successful but perhaps that will change with this article.

It’s somewhat ironic that dragon boating originated in Asia, yet there is a real stigma in Asia when it comes to talking about cancer. Are there Asian dragon boat teams?

EM: Talking about cancer is low on the conversation list in Asia. I remember my parents coming home from a funeral, and wondering if the deceased had cancer because he hadn’t looked well lately – he’d looked pale they would say, but they would never talk about it.

PT: AIAB has helped breast cancer teams to get started world-wide and there are teams in Shanghai, Malaysia and Singapore. In 2003 I was on an AIAB crew that travelled to Singapore to participate in a regatta there at the invitation of the Singapore team which AIAB helped start. The Singapore team was a mixed survivor and supporter team as women there needed a family member or friend to paddle with them. That may have changed with our participation and winning the breast cancer challenge race.

What would you say to breast cancer survivors who are thinking about trying dragon boating?

PT: Give it a try, even if you never have been keen on physical activity or team sports – you may surprise yourself. We would love to have you experience it with us. It will enrich your life in many ways: emotionally, mentally and physically.

VO: I’m not athletic but I love it, even if it often means practicing in the rain. The paddling, the camaraderie amongst all the members, the support, the regattas at different venues, the celebrations after – the list goes on. One of the recommendations to avoid a recurrence of breast cancer is exercise, and dragon boating is a great motivator to exercise and keep fit. Try it. You commit to 2 ½ months and if you don’t like it, at least you’ll know!

Anything you’d like to add?

PT: Our mission is to raise breast cancer awareness and to encourage those who have experienced breast cancer to lead full and active lives. And get your mammograms done!

EM: Adding to Patricia’s last words, don’t forget BSE – breast self-examination.