WASHINGTON – The first time Gail Messier saw a dragon,she was lying on a thin,hard table in a hospital room. A machine hovered over her chest. It was huge and smooth and radiated her body,day after day,with an invisible heat that made her raw.
Chemotherapy,surgery and now radiation – her treatment hurt,but it was saving her life. Malevolent but protective,it was like a dragon,she imagined. And she was a warrior,slaying her breast cancer with it.
“Who wants to willingly be poisoned,slashed and burned? No one in their right mind,” she said. “I think it was a way to ally myself with my treatment.”
During her radiation treatment earlier this year,the 50-year-old massage therapist from Takoma Park,Md.,discovered that dragons do exist,at least in an athletic sense. Messier joined GoPink!DC,a team of breast cancer survivors and supporters of survivors who paddle on the Anacostia River in what is called a dragon boat. She and her teammates will be competing in a 500-meter race at the National Harbor Dragon Boat Regatta on Saturday.
Dragon boating began in China more than 2,000 years ago. According to legend,an exiled Chinese statesman drowned himself in political protest during the third century B.C.,and boats scouted the water with drums and rice dumplings to distract the water dragons from eating him. Over time,re-enactments of the legend turned into an international competitive sport.
The modern dragon boat looks like an elongated canoe that seats 20 paddlers,in 10 rows of two,plus a steers person and a drummer. The boat is adorned with a dragon head and tail before races. At capacity,it weighs about 4,000 pounds.
Over the past 15 years,dragon boating has built a new tradition with breast cancer survivorship.
GoPink!DC founding member Annette Rothermel,56,of Bethesda,Md.,said that when she was diagnosed in 1997,she was told not to lift anything heavier than 5 pounds. Doctors believed that upper-body exercise aggravated the lymphatic system,which was particularly fragile after radiation or removal of lymph nodes. This could cause a condition called lymphedema,an incurable swelling in the arms.
But at about the same time as Rothermel’s diagnosis,a doctor in Canada began researching the effects of repetitive-motion exercises on lymphedema,using dragon boating as the model. He found that breast cancer survivors on the boat didn’t have a higher risk of lymphedema. In fact,he found,exercise might help prevent it.
Since then,dozens of breast cancer dragon boat teams have sprung up around the United States and Canada. Head coach and avid dragon boater David Winter,52,had seen breast cancer teams compete at several regional meets and wanted to bring that to Washington. He founded GoPink!DC in 2006. He and Rothermel are coworkers at the National Institutes of Health.
“For the breast cancer survivors,it can actually turn their lives around in a very significant way,” he said. “It’s about taking control of your body and your health.”
When the women are on the boat,Messier said,they leave their cancer behind on the dock. Twice a week on the Anacostia River,they are more than just survivors: They are athletes.
And they are successful ones at that. The team is ranked first in its regional breast cancer division,Winter said.
During a recent Monday night practice at the Anacostia Community Boathouse,Leslie Caplan,57,of Chevy Chase,Md.,sat at the head of the boat and called out drills.
“Push with your legs,” she yelled over the sound of paddles in water. She let out a whoop as the boat surged. “Excellent,feel that,ladies!”
Caplan,who works at the Department of Education,would sometimes set the pace of the boat by shouting as the paddles hit the water each stroke,something the drummer does during races. The boat moves fastest when all paddlers are in synch – the same form,the same timing. Power plays a secondary role.
The workout still pushes women to their limits,said Karen Woods,53. A non-profit fundraiser from Lorton,Va.,Woods joined the team a year after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She wanted to regain the athleticism that had faded during her treatment.
With GoPink!DC,she found not only a workout but also an unofficial support system – a community of women who have been through the same challenges,physically and emotionally.
“If you’re not on the cutting edge physically,you’re still accepted,” she said. “This is a world where people understand you.”
In a poem Messier wrote in April about dragon boating,she called the team “a sisterhood of the unwilling.” The women are bonded by fighting through their cancers and their treatments,by “digging deep/ in sickness and in health,” she wrote. They have decided not to let the dragon ravage them – they decided,instead,to ride it.
The regatta in National Harbor,Md.,begins at 9 a.m.,with the start of the preliminary race. The final race will conclude at 4 p.m. Organizers hope to let spectators try paddling in the dragon boats.
Reach reporter Emily Siner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-326-9871. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.