With October being breast cancer awareness month it seemed fitting to write about the connections between breast cancer and dragon boating. At every festival I have attended there are teams of breast cancer survivors. There are breast cancer survivor challenge races, flower ceremonies, and generally not a lot of dry eyes. But how did the connection between breast cancer and dragon boating start?
I am proud to say that it started in Canada, Vancouver to be exact, when Dr. Don McKenzie questioned the standard medical recommendation that individuals who had been treated for breast cancer should not engage in strenuous and repetitive upper body activity. The reasoning behind this recommendation was that because there are lymph nodes located under the arm that are removed or damaged by both surgery and radiation. Lymph is a clear to yellowish fluid that helps to do a variety of functions in your body including removing wastes, bacteria, and other materials. Many people have experienced swollen lymph nodes around their throat when they are fighting off infection. This lymph fluid can collect in different areas of the body, usually the arms and legs, if something happens to the nodes. This can happen for many different reasons including a particular parasite that blocks the nodes. With breast cancer this condition, called lymphedema (edema means the build up of extra fluid), can occur after treatment. It usually affects the arms in this case.
Dr. McKenzie wanted to test whether activities like dragon boating would actually cause lymphedema, or cause symptoms of the condition to worsen. He recruited 22 volunteers and formed a team. The team trained under supervision for a period of six months and competed in 1996 in the Alcan festival. None of the women developed lymphedema and none of the women who already had it got worse. But there was a side benefit as well: the team became a team and they didn’t want to quit.
Now there are over a hundred teams of breast cancer survivors worldwide. They train, compete, travel, and support each other. I can also say first hand that they inspire the paddlers around them with their camaraderie and positive approach to life.
There have been and still are many misconceptions about exercise in the face of disease, illness, and injury. There is also growing evidence on the role of exercise in mental health. I am thankful that this is changing through the work of people like Dr. McKenzie because I believe that it helps to improve our quality of life and I’ve met some pretty amazing people who have gotten involved in dragon boating because of their experiences with breast cancer.
References and links
Some of the material has been stuck in my head from a presentation I did on the topic several years ago so I can’t reference it but here are some sources.