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Breast Cancer Survivors Form Bonds, Gain Strength Through Dragon Boat Racing

Women in a pink dragon boat lean into their oar strokes during practice.
Sarasota-based dragon boat team, Survivors in Sync, is one of more than 200 breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams across 25 countries. DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

In the middle of the lake at Nathan Benderson Park, a 42- foot long pink canoe rocks lightly in the wake of a passing boat.  Inside, 20 women sit two by two on narrow benches. Each holds a single paddle just above the water's surface.

Standing at the back of the boat is Angela Long, the coach and steersperson for Sarasota-based dragon boat team, Survivors In Sync.  As she bends forward and starts a stopwatch, the women thrust their paddles into the water in unison.

Woman standing in pink boat
Angela Long is the coach and steersperson for Survivors in Sync. DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

The roots of dragon boating date back to China some 2000 years ago.  Now, it’s one of the world's fastest growing water sports and one reason why is breast cancer.

In 1995, a Canadian doctor set out to challenge the prevailing medical wisdom of the time, which was that repetitive upper-body exercise for women with breast cancer could lead to irreversible swelling in the arms, a condition known as lymphedema. 

He started a dragon boat team to prove his theory and after a four month season on the water, none of the women got lymphedema. The crew enjoyed the sport so much that they decided to promote breast cancer dragon boat paddling around the world.

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According to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission, there are now more than 200 breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams across 25 countries.

The IBCPC sponsors dragon boat competitions about every four years and in 2014, the festival was held at Nathan Benderson Park. The event featured 99 teams from eight countries and served as the inspiration for Survivors in Sync.

Angela Long is also one of the founders of the team. She is a 15-year breast cancer survivor.

“I had a very aggressive type of cancer and I was fortunate to catch it early,” she said.  “Dragon boating just seems to pull together everything that I’ve learned through advocacy and survivorship of what's really important for thriving after cancer. You have a support system, you are making plans, you’re setting goals and you’re forward focused."

Long says paddling in sync is an important part of the sport, but dragon boating is also very technical. That's why the team trains three times a week during racing season.

"Everyone is always trying to do that one thing more, that one percent more that's going to lower our times,” she said.

At 50, Long is one of the youngest members of Survivors in Sync. Today's team ranges in age from 47 to 80, but as teammate Betty Jo Craig of Sarasota will tell you, no on this team is a slacker.

“When we get in the boat you are going to have to paddle in sync with the rest of them,” she said. “They don’t care if you're 80 or 40 or whatever. You better be pulling hard and working hard no matter what your age is.”   

A woman holds a pink dragon boat oar with a breast cancer awareness ribbon on it.
While Survivors in Sync is made up of breast cancer survivors, they do not consider themselves a support group. Members rarely talk about the cancer, but focus on the sport. DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

The team includes stage four breast cancer survivors, and in their five years together, some teammates have died from the disease. If a woman is going through chemotherapy or surgery, the teammates will deliver food, run errands, or drive them to a doctor's appointment.

“After I had my operation, I would get calls or texts and these women would ask if they could come over and clean my house,” said Bradenton team member Kim Cullens, 47. “It's just wonderful to have that support. I don’t know what I would have done without these women.”

But make no mistake, says her fellow paddler Fern Millman, these women may be caretakers but they are also fierce competitors.

“This is not a support group,” said Millman of Sarasota.When we get in the boat, nobody ever discusses breast cancer. Yes, our bond is pretty amazing and we have a tight camaraderie but once we get in the boat, we're just athletes doing our job."

Women's Dragon Boat Team
Credit CATHY CARTER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

And she says, for many of these women, referring to themselves as athletes is a whole new experience.  

At 65, Millman, and many of the other women on the team had already graduated high school before girls were granted equal access to sports.

“So this is a really unique feeling,” she said. “I feel really strong and people are always like, wow, you have a lot of strength and I'm like yeah, wanna see my muscles?"

And for others, like 69-year old teammate, Linda Guilfoyle of Bradenton, dragon boating is almost like a form of meditation.

In the boat; there is a rhythm. Each woman is focused on the same thing. Getting the team to the finish line first.

"When we're in sync, you can almost close your eyes and just feel the boat gliding though the water,” Guilfoyle said. “And it really is such a powerful, energizing feeling of all of us paddling together."

A pink dragon boat and white dragon boat paddle alongside each other during a practice run before competition.
The International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission sponsors dragon boat competitions about every four years and in 2014, the festival was held at Nathan Benderson Park. The event featured 99 teams from eight countries and served as the inspiration for Survivors in Sync. DAYLINA MILLER/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

In May, Survivors In Sync swept all five of its races to win the gold at the Sarasota International Dragon Boat Festival, which entitles them to race in France next summer. That makes them just one of seven teams from the United States to race in the International Dragon Boat World Championship. The World Club crew championship happens every two years and features all types of dragon boat teams, not just breast cancer survivors.

Guilfoyle says she hopes that sends a message.

"That there is strength, there is vitality, and there is lots of energy after breast cancer,” she said.

And she added, Survivors in Sync always welcomes new members. But they would much rather that no one else becomes eligible to join the team.