Breast Cancer Survivors Find Strength
Sisterhood on Dragon Boat
By Susan Parrish for The Columbian
Paddlers find and create community on a team that practices at Vancouver Lake.
When Tammy Michelson climbed onto a dragon boat for her first-ever race, she knew she was prepared.
She had been practicing three times a week for a few months with her team, Catch-22, on Vancouver Lake. Despite describing herself as “not athletic” nor a joiner of sports teams, here she was poised on the narrow bench of a dragon boat, gripping her paddle and waiting for the horn that would start the race.
Michelson said, “I put on my fierce face and told myself: ‘All right! I can do it! I’ve already done this’ ”.
Indeed. She had done the hard work of paddling in unison with 19 others to propel a heavy dragon boat through the water. But she had accomplished so much more. She had survived breast cancer.
She completed her breast cancer treatment in April 2020 in the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown. When Michelson returned to her job as a data analyst for the city of Vancouver, co-worker Laura Thornquist, a Catch-22 dragon boat coach, invited her to a practice.
Michelson climbed onto a dragon boat, enjoyed the exercise and made a boatload of new friends.
“Paddling and friendships and shared goals are so life affirming,” Michelson said. “It’s only because of breast cancer that I have made these connections. These women are strong, resilient and have each other’s back. My life is better — not because of breast cancer — but because of the people who are now in my life.”
Her story of finding camaraderie on a dragon boat is a common thread binding together the breast cancer survivors of Catch-22. The shared sisterhood has built lifelong friendships among team members who spend time together off the dragon boat pursuing common interests: hiking, kayaking, golfing, attending concerts and more.
Sue Murphy was already an experienced Catch-22 paddler when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. On the day she was diagnosed, she went paddling with her team before she went home to talk with her family.
“I had to process it,” Murphy said. “My teammates were awesome. Laura called the next day to ask if I had any questions.”
Murphy underwent treatment during the pandemic. Fellow paddler and one of her best friends, Gail Rogers, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, set up a food brigade for teammates to deliver meals to ensure Murphy had good nutrition during her treatment.
“It’s such a great community — whether you’re a survivor or not,” Rogers said.
Paula Zellers, 80, was diagnosed with breast cancer 23 years ago and has been paddling a dragon boat for 22 years. She said the sport has kept her healthy and has given her a positive attitude.
She thinks it’s important to share her survivor story: “When you talk to someone who is newly diagnosed, they can look at you and think, ‘Diagnosed 23 years ago — and she’s still here!’”
Zellers said paddling on a dragon boat team “helped me and other survivors to rise up from the depth of the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis and find new and exciting aspects to our lives.”
She added, “There’s a special tightness with BCS (breast cancer survivor) paddlers. There’s a comfort in being together”.
Coach and breast cancer survivor Thornquist said, “When you have breast cancer, you tend to pull within yourself, but when breast cancer survivors get onto the boat, you can see them sitting taller. Getting stronger. I see people working really hard. Sometimes I have to hold survivors back so they don’t push themselves too hard.”
Catch-22 survivors were invited to paddle on another team’s boat during a 2018 survivors’ regatta in Italy. They returned from the experience inspired to set up a breast cancer survivors’ subdivision of Catch-22. Occasionally, the team has practices only for survivors, but most practices are mixed teams of men and women, including survivors.
Thornquist, Zellers and several teammates have paddled in international breast cancer survivor regattas in Italy, Canada and Australia. The team’s breast cancer subdivision plans to travel to New Zealand to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Dragon Boat Festival at Lake Karapiro in April 2023. The competition will feature members from 270 teams representing 33 countries. Every person on every boat must be a breast cancer survivor.
Each paddler will pay her own expenses including travel, hotels and most meals. The team’s expenses of almost $20,000 include registration fees, equipment, uniforms and more. Through various fundraising efforts, the team has raised nearly half of the required money to participate in the regatta.
Thornquist said it’s helpful for breast cancer survivors to “have something on the horizon to look forward to. A goal to work toward.”
The Catch-22 subdivision team isn’t all about breast cancer, though.
“It’s more about team building, being out on the water and giving breast cancer survivors the chance to just feel normal again — to forget about breast cancer for an hour,” Thornquist said.
Long-time paddler Sue Hammon has to wait some weeks before she can join her Catch-22 teammates on the water. In July, she had surgery for invasive ductal carcinoma. While her teammates climbed into a boat, she stood on the shore and wore a T-shirt that proclaimed “Catch-22: Power through paddling.” She plans to paddle with her team in New Zealand in 2023.
New paddler Michelson also plans to paddle in New Zealand for her first international breast cancer survivor regatta.
“When I was diagnosed, I was really frightened. Almost everything changed in my life,” Michelson said. “Getting a whole new group of cool friends changed everything, too. People who have my back. I feel grounded now.”
Catch-22 coaches Laura Thornquist, left, and Steve Kala, right, lead paddlers through practice on Vancouver Lake in August. (ELAYNA YUSSEN/for The Columbian)