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Road to Recovery

Submitted by Marina Haddock

At the end of June 2022, I was sitting in the waiting room wearing a hospital gown preparing to go back for radiation. It was my last week of treatment and the waiting spurred me to think about what would come next. I would be returning to work and my old routine in a few days and wasn’t sure I had really ‘learned’ what so many survivors say they had from this experience.

When I got home, I started searching the internet to find breast cancer survivor groups in the Central Florida area. Most of what I found were traditional support groups that meet in a hospital and talk about their treatments. I wanted something different. Something that would move me forward from the cancer experience.

The only BCS group I could find around Orlando was Warriors on Water, a BCS dragon boat team in the area. As I scrolled through the website, I learned about Dr Mackenzie and the groundbreaking team that had the courage to test a theory.

Then a link led me to the IBCPC website where I learned there was an international festival in New Zealand, one of my favorite places on the planet. It looked like I had just missed it in April 2022. I felt defeated.

But wait! Postponed… until 2023… due to Covid. There was a glimmer of hope for me yet!

Immediately I emailed Warriors on Water and got an invitation to come check out dragon boating, when cleared by my doctor. With a couple radiation treatments left and a slight complication (cording) to work through, I had started physical therapy and was slowly increasing my range of motion. Stretching three times per day paid off and I was finally able to fully extend my arm and lift it over my head.

The physical therapist and oncologist cleared me for dragon boating in August and I showed up to my first practice bright and early on a Saturday morning. I was afraid they would ask about my cancer and I would break down sobbing because it was all still so fresh. I wasn’t ready to talk about it yet and that was fine, no one asked. They accepted that I was a survivor and that was all that mattered.

I got in the boat and paddled… terribly, but enjoyed it! It gave me a sense of accomplishment and somehow I felt empowered. It made me push myself harder than I had since starting treatment and it felt good. It gave me hope that I could get back to the me before cancer.

At my second practice someone mentioned getting ready for New Zealand and I asked if there was room for one more. There was! I was hooked. At that moment I committed to learning this sport and rebuilding my strength so I could pull my weight in the boat at the festival less than 8 months away. I showed up consistently to practice and started making friends. I felt a sense of camaraderie with my teammates and pride in myself for taking on such a gnarly new challenge.

When people who hadn’t spoken with me since being in active treatment timidly asked how I was doing, I glossed over the cancer part and started talking about dragon boating. I was moving forward, in life and from cancer.

As anyone that participates in this sport knows, there is a lot that goes into each stroke. About 4 months prior to the festival, I started adding cross training components into my workout routine to help with each part of the stroke, incorporating jumping jacks into each session to keep my cording stretched and push for that full range of motion. I knew we would be doing 500-meter races, which made me feel winded, so I started running one day per week to help with endurance. For strength, I joined a CrossFit program and lifted heavier weights three times per week. My eating habits were pretty good, but I really focused on making sure quality foods were going into my body. By April, I felt stronger and healthier than I had pre-cancer one year prior. I was ready, and so was New Zealand.

As we all headed across the ocean, I was excited but didn’t know exactly what to expect. This would only be my second race. All I knew is that I could truly say I worked hard and tried my best to be as prepared as possible to help my team.

The Warriors on Water were a composite team for this festival and were honored to paddle with members from Ohio’s Dragon Dream Team and Georgia’s Dragon Boat Atlanta. We had practiced together back in the US and had gelled nicely.

There were several moments that I stepped away from everyone and took a moment to process where I was and what was happening. The race took place one year to the week of my lumpectomy. To look back on that year and see what a different world I was in was nothing less than amazing. Breast cancer brought me back to one of my favorite places on earth and this time I got to experience it with my teammates and thousands of fellow survivors. One of my personal highlights of the festival was getting to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony through Cambridge and get a front row seat for the amazing Māori presentations. There were a few moments of teary joy when it hit me that I was healthy and so incredibly proud to be a survivor. At that festival, I went from surviving to thriving.

And you bet I’ll be ready for France in 2026…Paddles up!