Submitted by Anna Winters
It was 2018 and I was sitting waiting for my new lymphedema sleeve to be fitted. I had been recovering from chemotherapy, a mastectomy, followed by radiation and then Diep Flap Reconstruction. At this time, I could barely lift my arm and due to complications from reconstructive surgery I was sort of a mess. I do believe I still had drains in when I sat down and noticed the pink pamphlet on the side table.
In bold letters it said “CVI A BREAST OF LIFE DRAGONBOAT TEAM RECRUITING” (CVI means Central Vancouver Island)
The notice said the team was a group of women who all had fought breast cancer and lived in Qualicum and Parksville (Oceanside), British Columbia, and they were looking for paddlers for their survivor dragonboat team.
I went home very intrigued. However, I didn’t think I could physically do it.
That night, I was still thinking about the pink pamphlet. So, I took my phone and googled “CVI A Breast of Life Dragonboat team”. A video from a few years back came up from the local television station. It was a documentary story of this team.
It was watching this video and seeing the women interviewed and their passion for this sport and how they were prime examples of living life after cancer that was so powerful to me. They contributed to our community and every year held a golf tournament that raised money for Breast Cancer Research. I knew no matter what I HAD to be a part of this.
The next day I called the number on the pink paper and Bonnie, the team recruiter, answered. We talked forever. I told her about my surgeries and my lymphedema and she told me her teammates do too, and that I needed to come and try it. She told me I was the baby of the team. I was 49 at the time and Bonnie had just turned 84. She has more energy that anyone I ever knew and she fueled me that day. She excited me so much and made me feel alive again.
I still had one more surgery and I had to wait until the following dragonboat season to finally paddle but I was in.
Then damn COVID hit the following year when I was ready to get on the boat so I had to wait again. It was torture. I watched you tube videos of dragonboat races in the meantime. I was still able to go to meetings and counted down the days until I could sit in that boat.
When the restrictions lifted and we were about to go out again, I was the first one at practice, paddle in hand.
I will never forget my first practice. I thought, “Oh, this will be easy because I am the youngest and oh my God some of these ladies are in their 80”s.”
Once we got on the water I was blown away. These so-called old ladies had the stamina of 20 year-olds. I was in awe. I was huffing and puffing and they looked fresh and ready to go again. One of the ladies said to me, “Don’t you worry. You will catch up to us one of these days!” It was incredible. I went to practices and got stronger and I loved being on the water. I learned the technique and became a dragon boater.
Lymphedema, doesn’t mean you can’t. You can. I knew that now because I was doing it.
But I only ever got to one regatta with the team. In Victoria, I did three races. It was one of the best days of my life. Being on the water with those women. Listening to our Coach Jo give us her heart and soul. I felt part of something so special. Blessed.
One month later I found out my cancer had spread. My spine was fractured and it was in my liver.
Metastatic Breast Cancer.
I had to tell the team. I cried and they held me up. Then I laughed because I realized “holy shit” I just did three races with a broken back!! Now that is a dragonboater!
I am still on the team. I can’t paddle anymore but I can be there with them and support and cheer them on and help in others ways. We have the yearly golf tournament, the community involvement and soon we will all be together to have a Christmas party. We are family. It is a bond that can’t be broken.
We recently lost one of our teammates suddenly. She had paddled with the team for 20 years. She was afraid of the water. She couldn’t swim. She gave me courage and her bravery. Every time we went on that water, she made me feel brave. She was so kind to me and made me feel encouraged at every practice. Our team will never forget you, Brenda. We love you.
I will forever be grateful for the pink pamphlet that I found that day not so long ago.