Bizcuits | Dragons Abreast

Leanda Lee

Ideas have their own time, I’ve been told.

In late 2013, I was stopped by a gentleman while overseas who notices my Macau-emblazoned sports slicker. He was curious about my connection with Macau as he had fond memories here as an international Dragon Boat race-caller. As one topic lead to another, he spoke of Dragons Abreast, a breast cancer survivors’ paddling movement which had started in Canada in the late 90s.

At my age there are too many women around me taken down by this dreaded disease, and so the seed to explore this pink paddling phenomenon had been planted with that one conversation. As happens, I am reminded of this gentleman’s fervour by a confluence of March events: International Women’s Day (March 8), “The March Charge” campaign of the Australian Cancer Council, and the opening of applications for the Dragon Boat race teams in Macau.

In many countries exercise for cancer patients remains frowned upon, but recent studies are finding evidence of positive effects during and after treatment that cannot be ignored. A 1996 Canadian study by exercise physiologist Dr Don McKenzie of the University of British Columbia was to put to the test the prevailing view that rigorous upper body exercise increased risk of lymphoedema in breast cancer patients. Lymphoedema is debilitating fluid retention due to an impaired lymphatic system. 

Dr McKenzie took 24 breast cancer volunteers and trained them for 3 months in dragon boat paddling. His paddlers showed a marked improvement in not only physical health – a minimisation in post treatment fatigue and other side effects and no patient developing lymphoedema – but also psychological health. The social nature of paddling offered an added bonus, as social support has been shown to improve survival.

As more dragon boat paddling groups set up, Dr McKenzie saw that over time a paddler’s focus moved from recovery, minimisation of side effects and regaining control of their lives to the sport itself – the races, the techniques, the competition. They became fitter, healthier and happier, and this has now been repeated with informal groups set up across the globe and formally with dragon boat teams in 20 countries having joined the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission. 7 countries competed in London’s dragon boat races in 2012; over 3,000 breast cancer survivor paddlers got together in Sarasota in 2014; and there were 15 crews in the Breast Cancer Survivor Challenge in the 2015 Dublin Dragon Boat Regatta.  Teams compete at dragon boat festivals throughout the world where there are races for cancer survivors.

Exercise and the fight against cancer is going mainstream. The Cancer Council in Australia also focuses on fitness to fight cancer as it has been shown that one third of cancers could have been prevented by healthy lifestyles. “Get Active” is an ongoing banner under which multiple campaigns are run every year to help not only with awareness and raising funds for research but also in the prevention of cancer and to support cancer patients. This month’s event is “The March Charge”, a personal fitness challenge asking Australians to log the kilometres they walk or run in the month.

International Women’s Day, on March 8th this year, challenges us to donate time and effort to drive gender parity in the #BeBoldForChange campaign. The IWD website suggests that one way to drive parity is to support and strengthen the vulnerable and another is to reinforce and support women’s triumphs. The cancer surviving Dragon Ladies of the Pink Paddling machines are exemplars of both. The Dragon Boat Association of Macau could diversify their program, joining a growing number of cities beyond London, Dublin and Florence in fighting the good fight. They might borrow a motto: “Doctors save our lives. Dragon boating saves our spirits.”

Categories Opinion