Breast cancer survivors find fitness and friendship in dragon boat racing – The Guardian

In a sport that builds strength and stamina, survivors meet in Melbourne to celebrate competition, camaraderie and taking control of their bodies
Caroline Mulcahy was a young backpacker when she first saw a dragon boat.
While in Hong Kong she would spend most mornings sitting by the port at Stanley Harbour, mesmerised by the teams of young men paddling 12-metre longboats gracefully through the water.
Despite the aesthetic appeal, Mulcahy never seriously considered taking up dragon boating herself, doubting her strength and stamina.
However, on chilly winter mornings in Melbourne, Mulcahy, 55, can now be found paddling around Docklands in a dragon boat full of breast cancer survivors.
“It’s a bit ironic but breast cancer has introduced me to a sport I thought I would never be able to participate in,” Mulcahy says.
Mulcahy and her crew are the newest team to join Dragons Abreast, an Australian dragon boating organisation for breast cancer survivors.
It’s part of an international movement, which includes hundreds of teams from 32 countries that traces its roots to 1996 when Canadian doctor Don McKenzie began trialling the sport as a treatment for breast cancer survivors.
Despite the advertised physical benefits, Mulcahy was hesitant when she first saw a brochure during her recovery in 2010.
“I turned to [my husband] Chris and I said I would love to do that but I couldn’t face joining a team where I knew women … who have been through this awful experience and they could get rediagnosed and might die,” Mulcahy says.
Mulcahy had endured several rounds of chemo, a mastectomy, breast reconstruction surgery and numerous other surgeries and medical appointments before finally beating the disease. In all, it took five years for her to feel ready to join a group.
“The upper body and core exercises from dragon boating are fantastic,” Mulcahy says.
“When I haven’t been paddling [due to Covid] I’ve found that I’ve been getting really stiff shoulders, so I need to get massages or go to the chiropractor. But when I am paddling, I never have to do that.”
It’s the camaraderie, though, that has been most beneficial.
“Being surrounded by these incredible women who have overcome breast cancer, I knew if they could survive this so could I.”
Joining the team for their first official paddle since the pandemic ended, there’s a buzz in the air.
After an hour’s intense paddling through Docklands in sync to a beating drum, there are few signs of tiring – instead, everyone is laughing and smiling.
“It was fantastic. Even my husband said I haven’t seen you smile as much as you had coming back from paddling. It felt so good being on the water,” says fellow member Romy Collier.
From the dock, Collier’s nine-year-old son is cheering her on.
He was eight months old and had only recently been adopted by Collier when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.
“My biggest fear was that they were going to take him away from me,” she says.
“We had been waiting for nine years in the system. That was the hardest bit, having waited so long to get him and thinking, ‘What’s going to happen now?’”
Dragon boating has played an important role in helping Collier adjust to her “new normal”.
“A lot of people were saying to me now that you’ve finished your treatment you can get back to your old life, but actually no I can’t,” she says.
“I’ve got all this scarring. I can’t lift my arm over my head … I finished my treatment in 2015 and I still have ongoing issues that I still need to manage.
“That’s why dragon boating is so good. You use every part of your body in the boat, and it keeps everything moving and it is done in a really supportive way, so if you can’t do something there’s no pressure to push yourself.”


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