Dragon Boats Vs. Breast Cancer
For breast cancer survivors around the world, dragon boating is more than a sport. It's a floating support group.
Source: Folks.Pillpack.com - 26 September 2019
It’s early morning in Beijing, and east of downtown nearly two dozen women in bright red T-shirts—all breast cancer survivors—paddle hard down the Tongzhou Canal. They share stories of recovery, form friendships, and heal their bodies, minds, and hearts on the water.
For many of the women, talking about their cancer was taboo before they ventured onto the boat. In China, it’s not uncommon for women with cancer to hide their diagnosis—even from close family—out of a fear of being stigmatized. But that’s changing with help from an unconventional cancer support group for breast cancer survivors: dragon boating.
It’s a sport with its origins in China some 2,500 years ago, and in recent years, dragon boating has gone mainstream. Teams—both amateur and professional—made up of twenty paddlers, a steerer and a drummer commit to a challenging practice schedule and then compete around the world in races ranging from 500 to 2,000 meters. The Beijing team, Beijing Dragon Sisters, is one of 225 teams across 25 countries formed specifically to support breast cancer survivors and their families.
In China, it’s not uncommon for women with cancer to hide their diagnosis—even from close family—out of a fear of being stigmatized.
Beijing native and breast cancer survivor Beirong Xiong, 61, who now lives in Canada, has led the charge to bring dragon boating for breast cancer survivors to China. Xiong kept her own diagnosis a secret for nearly a dozen years. It was joining her local breast cancer survivor dragon boating team in Ottawa that emboldened her to open up.
“I felt ashamed,” Xiong said. “I didn’t even tell my family.”
Her stage one breast cancer diagnosis came the day before her wedding and it was quickly followed by a lumpectomy on her left breast. After three months of radiation, she was exhausted and depressed and thirty pounds heavier. That’s when her oncologist suggested she join a local breast cancer support group. She was intrigued by a few members who were also a part of Ottawa’s dragon boat paddling team, Busting Out. So, Xiong bought a jersey and set off to join them on the Rideau River.
“I just loved it right away,” said Xiong, an insurance advisor who used to play basketball in the People’s Liberation Army in China. “When I’m on the boat, I feel a really positive energy. It’s all about teamwork. We all share the same goal, we want to live.”
“When I’m on the boat, I feel a really positive energy. It’s all about teamwork. We all share the same goal, we want to live.”
Xiong now also competes on professional, non-breast cancer-related dragon boating teams, and she’s raced in countries around the world. Last year, she secured donations—a boat, paddles—for the Beijing breast cancer team, and since then she’s helped launch and train seven other dragon boat teams in China. It’s an initiative she calls Awakening the Dragon Sister.
“These women are very, very proud of what they’re accomplishing,” she said, “and now, they’re getting support.”
Dragon boating helped Xiong heal as she bonded with other survivors. Her teammates also supported her when her doctor said he thought the cancer had spread to her lungs. Thankfully, it was a false alarm. Now, Xiong paddles and trains multiple time a week, and she’s thriving. “I’m in the best shape of my life,” she said.