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Paddling their way to better health

feature1Breast cancer is a disease that affects women of all ages all around the world – a fact that is brought home at events like the International Dragon Boat Festival, being held in Peterborough this weekend. More than 70 teams from around the world, made up of breast cancer survivors and their supporters, will dip their paddles in Peterborough’s Little Lake.

“It’s confronting to realize all these women had breast cancer, but it’s also great that all these women are survivors and enjoying life,” said Robyn Glen of Tasmania.

A handful of survivors from Tasmania have joined forces with Guelph-based Breastrokes, making their entry a true international effort.

In 2007, Breastrokes took part in an international event in Australia. Not all of them were able to go, so they joined up with a Tasmanian team – “Nipples on Ripples” – that was also short paddlers. Now, with the event being held in Canada, the Tasmanians decided it was time to visit some old friends and race together again.

The team got in its last training sessions this week at Puslinch Lake, going over race strategy. The course is 500 metres long, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you realize the boat weighs around 1,500 pounds.
“It’s only two and a half minutes – the last half of which you will regret,” steerer Connie Jasinkskas told the paddlers at practice Wednesday.

“There is such an adrenaline rush when you are in that boat, getting that boat moving and racing against other women,” said Elmira resident Barb Dunsmore.

Dunsmore was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago and ended up having a double mastectomy. Looking for a way to get back in shape after finishing chemotherapy, she was recruited to join the Breastrokes.

“When you come out of chemo of after having a diagnosis of breast cancer, it can be pretty devastating,” she said. “Not only have you had surgery, but you’ve had all these chemicals pumped into your body. It takes a long time for your body to recover from that.”

Dragon boat paddling not only helped her regain her strength, it connected her with a group of women who had gone through the same diagnosis that she had. They’re a support group, but one that doesn’t dwell overmuch on histories; they tend toward hysterical, rather than historical, Dunsmore said, explaining they’ve learned to laugh at themselves.

Dunsmore’s teammate Beverly Nelson agrees.

“The camaraderie, I think, is the best part of it,” Nelson said.

Nelson joined the team in 2001, six weeks after her last radiation treatment. She learned about dragon boat racing from her doctors, something that was unheard-of just 10 years earlier. Up until the mid-90s, doctors believed that repetitive arm movements might cause lymphedema, a swelling of the arm that occurs in 25 per cent of breast cancer patients. Women were discouraged from playing tennis, golfing, even gardening and knitting.

That myth was challenged by Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia. In 1996, he persuaded a group of breast cancer survivors to take up dragon boat racing, one of the most demanding upper body exercises around. Two years later, he published “Abreast in a Boat – a race against breast cancer,” with his findings: not only did regular exercise not lead to lymphedema, but it helped the survivors’ overall health.

Since then, breast cancer survivors around the world have taken up dragon boat racing. Although it has become associated with breast cancer survivors, the sport also helps women realize the disease doesn’t define them, Dunsmore said.

“It’s a healing, healthy way to deal with a dreadful diagnosis.”

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