Breast cancer dragon boat paddling began at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada in 1996. Dr. Don McKenzie, a Professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and exercise physiologist challenged the prevailing medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema, a debilitating and chronic side effect of treatment.
Dr McKenzie developed a programme to determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors, choosing dragon boat paddling as the epitome of strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise. He invited twenty-four breast cancer volunteers ranging in age from 32 to 64, from a variety of backgrounds, and with a full range of fitness and physical ability to join him. He trained the volunteers in a gym for three months, introduced them to dragon boats and taught them paddling techniques.
At the end of the three-month season on the water, none of the volunteers had lymphedema. While Dr. McKenzie’s medical project was complete, the women found they were fitter, healthier and happier. They loved the camaraderie and support of their fellow paddlers and had regained control of their lives. They realised dragon boat paddling could become a means of raising breast cancer awareness and show that survivors could lead normal lives. They named their team ‘Abreast In A Boat’ and invited other survivors to enjoy the benefits and share their exciting experience.
The invitation was taken up: the following year, 1997, there were five breast cancer dragon boat teams in Canada. The movement has since grown – we have over 225 teams across 26 countries and 6 continents!
These teams continue to reflect the guiding principles laid down by Dr McKenzie in 1996 - they are as diverse in their membership in terms of age, physical ability and background now as they were then. They are open and inclusive to all with the common factor - a diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer. These teams have paddled in different countries including New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Penang, Italy, France, Canada, USA, Australia, Poland as well as many others, taking their message with them.
They have come together at International Festivals three times over the last eight years. At the first, Ten Years Abreast, in Vancouver (2005), the Australians caught the spirit and in 2007 paddlers flocked to Caloundra, Queensland as they did to Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 2010, Sarasota in USA – 2014, and most recently Florence, Italy in 2018. On each of these occasions for three fabulous fun-filled days, the teams, averaging 2000 – over 3000 people in all, and each a breast cancer survivor celebrated on land and water. They paddled, laughed, danced, talked, shopped, listened, learned, supported, sang, paraded, made friendships and renewed friendships.
It was agreed that these Festivals characterized by their inclusiveness and camaraderie should continue. In June 2010 at the Peterborough Festival, member teams approved a Constitution and By-Laws to formally establish the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC). The Commission is also affiliated with the International Dragon Boat Federation which supports the Commission.