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Launch Event for We Workingwomen (Ottawa branch)

December 2, 2022

The article below is an excerpt of an introduction to Beirong as the guest speaker at the launch of the We Workingwomen.

Submitted by Beirong XiongNational Representative to China and founder of Toronto-Beijing Dragon Sisters.

Beirong Xiong is a multiple winning world medalist of Canada’s senior B women’s dragon boat team, a motivator and sport advocate, the initiator of China’s Dragon Sisters breast cancer dragon boat teams, and the first person to bring breast cancer dragon boat sport to China.

Beirong’s story has inspired countless breast cancer patients, helping them overcome the fear of disease, and encouraged many people to keep fit and enhance their happiness in life. Today we especially invited her to share her experience and fitness journey with us.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am honored to welcome Beirong Xiong to our stage.

Bei’s speech follows: Thanks for those are wonderful words. It is true. Sixteen years ago my world turned upside down when my doctor said the words - there is cancer in your left breast. I felt like I was falling off a cliff.

Something I learned: Our bodies are amazing. Radiation and years of medication treatment saved my life. But other effects remained. Cancer had changed me. I felt old and lonely, I was overweight, out of shape. I had lost my spirit and my confidence. I did not want to see people. I was ashamed to tell my Chinese friends, even my family, about my cancer. They would surely judge me, blame me, abandon me for fear of catching my bad luck. I built a wall around me. For ten long years I kept my cancer a secret. Then, five years ago, I came out of the shadows. I can tell you that I am a 16 years breast cancer survivor and I am 64 years old. What changed? How is it I can stand here telling you something I hid away for so long?

Another thing I learned: Find your community. My doctor suggested I meet other breast cancer survivors to see how they were dealing with their situation. I went to a Breast Cancer Action meeting and my life changed again! I met women of all ages and backgrounds who welcomed me into their world of mutual support and exercise. They gave me a seat in their dragon boat, and they handed me a paddle with which to carve out a new path for myself - a path of self-discovery. I drank up their support. Some became my role models. They were fearless. They had dreams. They were moving toward.

The third thing I learned: Believe in yourself. Thanks to these amazing women I found a way, a reason to be joyful and confident again. I pushed past my feelings of fear, shame, and guilt to a place of hope and energy. I asked my role models “how can I set my own dreams and achieve them. They told me “A journey of a thousand miles begins with small steps.” I saw how they broke barriers; how age for them was just a number, labels were things to be challenged, body image was ours to own and control. They told me “Stress is a killer”. I rediscovered my younger, athletic self. I set out to be the best paddler I could be. I worked out. I asked questions. I set small goals and did the work to achieve them. I met new friends and travelled the world, winning medals and experiencing new places. Something else I learned: to reach a goal, first make a goal.

Eventually I came to a decision - to give something back to this amazing community of women, to bring messages of hope to those living in the shadows of breast cancer. But first I had to came out about my own breast cancer. Encouraged by this new mission I gave my first interview with journalists at dragon boat championships. And to my surprise there was keen interest in my story! I had opened the floodgate. Far from the judgement I feared, I received acceptance and encouragement. I felt complete and authentic again. I was ready to give back. Now, please raise your hands, those of you who have followed my zoom fitness training program and dragon boat training program in the last three years. I want to take this opportunity to say congratulations to you for gaining your fitness and confidence. Congratulations for finding your happiness, finding the balance in your life. After three years of effort, no matter your age, many of you have reached your best fitness levels in your life. Your dreams have come true. You look so young, fit, and gorgeous! I am so very proud of you. I also want to thank you from my heart for all that you have given me. I have gained so much love and encouragement with your support and friendship. You made me the best I can be. Today, many of our breast cancer survivor dragon boat team sisters in China and in Toronto are not here. In April, for the first time ever, two Chinese teams of breast cancer survivors from mainland China and North America will travel to New Zealand to meet and paddle with thousands of other survivors from around the world for the first time. It’s the result of their four-year journey - through Covid, through lockdown, through the highs and lows of continuous training. Their achievements, their transformations will shine a light to all Chinese women everywhere - showing there are pathways beyond stigma, isolation, and self-doubt. Where there is community, there is hope, there is help. There is a way forward to happiness and self-discovery. Why did it take me so long to come out from behind this curtain? Why did I choose to hide from help for so long? The answer may surprise you. My story is not just about breast cancer. It’s about definitions and the stigma and stress which all too often can cause us to bottle up our true emotions and needs from those around us, even from ourselves.

We are raised to put ourselves second - to be selfless and be of service to others. This leaves little room for asking for the help and support we need when faced with life’s challenges - illness, family conflict, menopause, setbacks at work, financial troubles, or the death of loved ones . I also learned: we get better at this with practice So now everything is okay in my life, right? Well, the fact is when we remove one life challenge, another is almost certain to follow! Can you imagine a life with no challenges? How boring would that be! The key for me is what we bring to the door when challenges come knocking. Here’s a great example… Early this spring my mothers’ health took a worrying turn. Her situation was dire. My husband and I set out to reach her bedside in Beijing. Two days after entering our required lockdown in Shanghai, my mum passed away. Then the city went into a very long Covid lockdown. In all we spent 53 days in isolation before meeting family and holding my mum’s ashes. She was my best friend. My hero.

Understandably, many friends ask “How did you manage this demanding situation without a breakdown? I used the same tools that helped me overcome my cancer.

#1. Believe. I believed I could go through it no matter how hard the situation got. I possessed the inner strength to overcome this setback. This helped me to calm down and reach out for the help we needed.

#2. Ask for help. I reached out and at every turn found kind, supportive people, and communities. I was not alone. My fitness buddies were my main community. Four times each week, members of my Ottawa fitness classes and breast cancer dragon boat paddlers grounded and encouraged me during our zoom call workouts.

We received so much love, help and tremendous support from friends around the world. A friend in this room linked my WeChat to her bank account and she delivered a local cell phone to my hotel. Shanghai breast cancer dragon boat team members delivered dumplings and medicine to my hotel room.

#3. Set a goal and plan to get there. It sounds simple but with reality and rules shifting daily having a plan and the flexibility to adapt to change kept us on course and feeling in control. We celebrated every little achievement and there were many when we had the right outlook.

I believe that reaching out to friends and to strangers, believing in a positive outcome and determined to honour my mum’s memory, our long journey to Beijing was, without a doubt, the most fulfilling experience of my life. I have also learned: we are all motivators. I thank my cancer experience. it was a wake-up call. A turning point. It made me rethink, refocus, and reset my life. We each influence those around us. I have found that the little help I give to other women is returned so many folds to me.

Whatever your goal, whatever your challenges, whatever your doubts, you can do this! Look within yourself. Rediscover yourself. Then, look around you for like-minded people, communities which understand and accept who you are. They will recharge your batteries. They will inspire you to continue your journey.

Finally, decide your destination, set your goal, and plan. Small steps will take you there. A whole new world of wonder, community and self-acceptance awaits you. You can do this!! Finally, Thank you Helen! Thank you for sponsorship of our China Dragon Sisters project. Your support and donations will help to bring Chinese breast cancer survivor teams from Shanghai, Beijing, and Toronto to New Zealand in 2023. I am honoured to present you with this team uniform which the Dragon Sisters will be wearing on that important world stage.

Thank you! 谢谢!