Breast cancer survivor Florianne Yeung is a vibrant member of her Riverdale community in Toronto. A retired public servant, she is socially engaged and physically fit: biking, paddling, and practicing Tai Chi and yoga. She is happy, full of energy, and purpose. So what is her secret, I asked in a phone interview last month? Dragon boat racing.
Picture the brackish waters of Lake Ontario, a 12-metre long canoe-like vessel with a dragon figurehead at the bow, powered by 22 women. Dragon boat racing embodies both the social and physical components required to combat cancer. It employs a camaraderie borne from the energy of women waging separate battles in the same fight, and transforms the fear and frustrations in their lives to a state of empowerment, allowing them to rally, unite, and regain a sense control. The physical benefits cannot be overlooked: paddling invigorates the lymphatic system, a part of the immune system often affected in the course of breast cancer and during treatment.
Dragon boat racing originated in the Pearl River Delta Region of Guangdong Province, China more than 2,000 years ago. It’s only in the last few decades that women with breast cancer have adopted it as their own, first in Vancouver. Prior to the 1990s, the medical community held that women with breast cancer or in recovery should not exercise the upper body vigorously, believing that doing so would precipitate lymphedema, swelling and fluid retention resulting from lymph node damage. This notion was debunked by Dr. Don McKenzie a physiologist and professor of sports and exercise medicine at the University of British Columbia. In 1996 he conducted a study composed of 24 breast cancer survivors who practised and raced in dragon boats over a three-month period. Dr. McKenzie monitored their physical health. Not only did the women’s symptoms improve, counter to the prevailing view that strenuous exercise would be deleterious for recovery, but the women were so invigorated by the practice that they set up an independent dragon boat team, the first of its kind in the world. They named it ‘Abreast in a Boat’.
Florianne’s Toronto team, “Dragons Abreast Toronto” is the second in the world, founded in 1997 by Eleanor Nielsen who was inspired by the original BC collective. Eleanor asserts that the ancient Chinese ritual helps with the teammates’ lymphedema and mood. Initially recruiting one crew of 22, Dragons Abreast Toronto now has more than 100 members. Membership is open to both women and men of any age who’ve faced breast cancer. Michelle Tocher, a friend of Eleanor, documented the Toronto team’s inspiring story in her book How to Ride a Dragon: Women with Breast Cancer Tell Their Stories.
First diagnosed in 1999, Florianne tells me she was initially “devastated” by her prospects, considering the diagnosis to be a life-altering and potentially fatal blow if not to the body then to the psyche and spirit. But while she was serving as a Peer Support volunteer in 2000 for Willow Breast Cancer Support, a fellow volunteer loaned her a copy of Tocher’s book, urging her to read it and join the team. Florianne hasn’t looked back saying she was “hooked.”
She jumped into the subject of racing with a passion that echoed the thrum and splash of lashing the water with paddles. “We are all in the same boat,” she told me. No one spot in the boat is more coveted than another. Each dragon boat has 10 people per side, a drummer, and a steersperson, comprising 22 women in total. They each serve their role: the drummer in the bow is the heartbeat of the dragon, setting the pace and serving as coach, ensuring synchronization; the steersperson in the helm uses a rudder-like paddle to guide direction; and the paddlers propel everyone forward, employing the muscles of their arms, core, and legs.
“The key is that we all paddle together in unison like a well-oiled machine,” she continued. “One can’t push and pull. It needs to work in a fluid motion.”
She described the women as working in tandem, not in opposition. Despite the indispensable role of each paddler, some women are more suited to certain positions in the boat than others. Often it is height that is the determining factor for where a women is positioned: tall in the middle of the boat, short in the back. Weight is also taken into consideration to ensure the boat is balanced. The middle seats are the “engine room," according to Florianne.
The role of drummer is sometimes reserved for women going through courses of treatment, who may have reduced physical strength and endurance. Joanna Chrystal is one such woman. She has been racing with the team since 2000 but in recent years experienced a stage 4 bone metastasis to her hip. Since then she’s taken multiple medications and endured bouts of chemotherapy. Despite her weakened state, her spirit is strong. She still drums and she jokes that as a drummer hers is “a position of power, ha ha”. I sense that this comic trait is a big part of who she is. She tells me she had a wig party for her 70th birthday—all her friends wearing wigs while she bravely went wigless. “I certainly have had a good ride and am not about to let go and will keep on riding the dragon,” says Joanna.
Dragons Abreast Toronto meet year round at Sunnyside Beach on Lake Ontario, paddle in the warm months while engaging in dry practice in the fall and icy winters. After practice, the women, still wearing their pink team attire, share food and drink at the Sunnyside Cafe. Florianne’s smile is evident in her voice: “At times we leave practice and chant ‘Ice cold beer! Ice cold beer’ while making our way to the Cafe”. The waterside restaurant is such a fixture in the team’s schedule, that they are recognized warmly as ‘the pink ladies’ by staff.
Given that it’s a racing activity, I’m curious how often they’ve won their races. “I never cared about winning,” Eleanor had already told me. And Florianne’s response further emphasized this point: “When we are paddling and hitting the water we are ‘conquering’ or ‘slaying’ the dragon’, even if we don’t win the race we win.” I could hear the smile in her voice. “We finish first in our lane every time.” She paused, then chuckled. “And we beat cancer.” It’s an inside joke, each boat is assigned a single lane so naturally their team would always finish first within their lane.
In her book Tocher draws parallels between the slaying of the dragon Grendel in the Old English classic, Beowulf, and the battle women face against breast cancer. Women envision their sport as a hunt, and their own cancer their Grendel or dragon — a force to be slain.
In 1999, Abreast in a Boat held an event for 10 dragon boat teams, Eleanor was in attendance. At the event Dr. Don McKenzie used the expression “You aren't racing against each other, you are racing against Lane 11 ( or cancer),” putting emphasis on the symbolism of racing as a sport of healing and unity, as opposed to the typical winning and losing pervasive in sport.
Florianne only started racing in 2003 and now it’s her passion. She tells me, “Before I was just living but now I’ve discovered my purpose.” Florianne never experienced lymphedema but emphasizes the preventative effects of the sport: staying physically active is salubrious for the lymphatic system. Lymphedema can occur 20 years after surgery so she can “never be complacent about it.” In Florianne Yeung’s case, paddling with the team on a regular basis ensures her lymphatic system remains intact with the added benefits for her mental health and social life.
I’m inspired by the emotional power these women possess. It’s infectious. They embody a different level of energy and joy than the average person. Their collective fight against breast cancer enables them to seize upon their strengths and unite in solidarity against each other’s ‘dragons’. “…It makes us feel more strong and powerful in our real lives in order to fight breast cancer,” says Florianne.
Written by Allie Futterer, Toronto blogger