Fighting the dragon within

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Suzanne Ma

Twenty-two women in hot pink surge forward in a long narrow boat across the murky green water at Toronto’s Centre Island. “Hit! Hit! Hit!” screams Eleanor Nielsen, a paddler sitting in the first row. She raises her paddle and plunges it into the water, keeping the team in pace. Heavy rhythmic thumps from a large, round drum spur her on. The drum beats faster. The paddles dig harder. The women are fighting to keep ahead of five other boats sprinting toward the finish line. Cheers erupt from nearby as Nielsen’s boat crosses the finish line. Water and sweat drip off her face. Her teammates lift their paddles up and shout, “Boom didyada, boom di dyada…” The Dragons Abreast dragon boat team celebrates another victory.

These women are celebrating in the face of the deadline dragon. Breast cancer has struck each one of them — the youngest team member is in her early thirties, the eldest is 79. Nearly 100 survivors from Toronto have joined Dragons Abreast. Here at the Toronto International Dragon Boat Festival, they paddle with gritted teeth and searing passion. But they aren’t racing against each other. They are all fighting for the same cause.

Dragons Abreast has become what Nielsen, 66, calls a floating support group since she founded it in 1997. “Often, the health care system would try to identify what is best for us. But they don’t always have the answers.” Nielsen found the answer in dragon boating. She didn’t even know what a dragon boat was when her breast cancer was first diagnosed 16 years ago. Then in 1996, she met a group of women from a Vancouver dragon boat team. They called themselves Abreast in a Boat — the first breast cancer survivor team in Canada. Nielsen was fascinated.

Today, buried under snow on her front lawn, a cement dragon waits faithfully for spring, about the same time the dragon boats in the Toronto harbor will awaken from their hibernation. On a cold winter day, a kettle of tea can be seen boiling on the stove through the front window of her blue-painted home, tucked away in a cozy circle drive in the Toronto Beaches. Nielsen takes out two porcelain dragons from an oak cabinet. Her short, dazzling silver hair matches the silver dragon pendant around her neck. A photo album — bursting with snapshots of women in hot pink dancing, paddling and singing — and a fairy tale book of dragons lies open on the coffee table. And upstairs in the bedroom, two stuffed animal dragons are sound asleep on Nielsen’s bed. The dragon has become her companion. She smoothes her hand across a plaque made of black polished stone. The team won the Breast Cancer Spirit Cup at Centre Island last summer.

Winning has been a Dragons Abreast tradition since the team formed seven years ago. In China, dragon boat racing has been a tradition for over 2,000 years. According to legend, poet and scholar Qu Yuan jumped into a river in despair to protest against government corruption. Local fishermen raced out in their boats to save him, pounding their drums and beating the waters furiously to ward off the water dragons they feared might eat him. Dragon boat racing has evolved from the re-enactment of this legend. Paddlers sit in a long canoe-like craft, colourfully painted with a dragon’s head on the front and a tail on the back.

“For many people, breast cancer is a death sentence,” Nielsen says. One in nine women in North America will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. “But they don’t realize that there are women in Canada who have gone through the experience of having breast cancer and are leading full, active lives.”

Team member Franci Finklestein, 44, is still afraid of the dragon. It came back two years ago, just when she thought it had gone away. The second diagnosis forced Finklestein to have a hysterectomy — a surgery involving the removal of her reproductive organs. “I really felt it reached in and ripped something out of me. As a woman, you grow up knowing that you have power to give life, to be a parent, to be a mother,” she said. “To have that choice taken away from you, that’s a hardship.” Dragons Abreast provided her with a community of women who didn’t focus on the hardships, but were joined by the bond of survival. “It was the woe is me kind of feeling [at those other support groups]. I wasn’t ready to talk about death and dying because I wanted to live. It was amazing seeing those women who had been diagnosed, who had just gotten out of the hospital, paddling strong and hard. They were out on the water, looking so alive. They were having so much fun.”

Pat Brown, 53, remembers training with the team on a cold and stormy summer night. She recalls seeing her coach stand up at the front of the boat, urging them to keep on paddling. “He’s standing up there and he’s screaming at me to look up. So I throw my hood back and the rain just pouring on me. He throws his hands up wide and shots ‘Ain’t it great to be alive?!’ And I thought ‘Oh my God, it is. I’m out here in the middle of Lake Ontario in the middle of a storm with the rain pouring down. And I’m alive. Isn’t that great?’ It was so empowering.”

A decade ago, survivors were urged to avoid vigorous upper body exercise for fear of producing lymphedema, a side-effect from breast cancer treatment. But in the late nineties, all this changed. Dragon boat paddling appeared to have the potential to improve a woman’s quality of life after treatment. It all started in Vancouver, with Abreast in a Boat. Sport medicine physician Dr. Don McKenzie was studying the impact of dragon boating on a group of women treated for breast cancer. He concluded that if the women were carefully monitored and trained, there was no increase in lymphedema. Participants were so enthusiastic about their paddling experience, they formed a dragon boat team soon after. Terry Mitchell, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Wilfred Laurier University, recently completed a study involving 408 survivor dragon boaters in Ontario. Her findings suggest that dragon boating can nurture a survivor psychologically and socially. The sport provides what she refers to as a “hopeful mission” for the survivor, her family and her community. In more than 40 different communities from Vancouver to Halifax, survivors have picked up paddles to join the fight.

Here at Centre Island, the race is over. The crowd grows silent as the women join hands and bring the boats together to float side-by-side. Now, hundreds of pink carnations are held up towards the sky. Too many have died from breast cancer. They are here to remember those who cannot paddle anymore. The flowers fall onto the water, tossed from the hands of mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends. Nielsen is crying, sharing hugs and kisses. It’s good to be alive. The ceremony is a hopeful reminder that there is life after breast cancer. Nineteen women have died since Dragons Abreast formed, but this only pushes the team to keep doing what they’re doing. “I got cancer. And then I had a choice,” says Nielsen. “I could be miserable for the rest of my life because I had cancer and feel sorry for myself, or I could decide that I wasn’t going to let cancer lessen my pleasure in living. Fifteen years after my cancer, I am a dragon lover. It’s my guardian, it keeps me safe.”

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