Dragon Boat racing is one of the fastest growing team water sports in the world – especially among breast cancer survivors. According to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, the sport originated 2,000 years ago in China. A team of 20 paddlers, each with one paddle – plus a steersperson and a drummer to keep everyone in sync – race in an authentic 46-foot long Hong Kong style dragon boat.
The sport caught the attention of breast cancer survivors about 20 years ago, when sports medicine specialist Donald C. McKenzie challenged the thinking that breast cancer survivors should not exercise or participate in sports. He believed Dragon Boat racing would benefit survivors’ physical health and social wellbeing and encouraged them to create teams. His research, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, found “an emerging hypothesis that dragon boating is a vehicle for improving women’s wellness and post-treatment quality of life.”
Today, there are more than 200 Dragon Boat teams of breast cancer survivors in 26 countries. Juzo understands the importance of exercise for survivors’ mental and physical health, especially for those with lymphedema in the upper extremities. In honor of the sport and survivors who participate, Juzo designed a commemorative Dragon Boat sleeve, which became available this April. The sleeve reiterates a bold statement, breast cancer survivors not only rock the boat – they can row one, too!
The Dragon Dream Team, Ohio’s first all breast cancer survivor team, practices at Portage Lakes State Park near Juzo’s U.S. headquarters. We provided the Dragon Boat sleeve to team members with lymphedema for support during spring training in preparation for the 7th Annual Dragons on the Lake Dragon Boat Festival in July. We talked with a few team members to find out what they enjoy about the sport and their team.
Toby Ratcliffe Bothel joined the team five years ago after moving from Washington D.C. Diagnosed in 2007, she learned about Dragon Boat racing from her oncologist and looked forward to getting back on the water and being active, post-treatment.
“I grew up on the water and even lived on a boat for two years. After a few meetings and practices, I fell in love with the team spirit of paddling. I got to leave cancer at the dock and be an athlete on the water again,” Toby said. “To me, racing serves the need to share your experiences with other survivors while becoming the best paddlers possible. I enjoy the comradery and offering others hope that you can be active, healthy and a contributing member of an athletic team after a cancer diagnosis.”
There are 80 members of the Dragon Dream Team, all are survivors. Some are still in treatment and several have lymphedema, including Kathy Weichl.
Kathy’s oncologist suggested she try the sport because she was young and active. Even though she lost muscle mass in her left shoulder during her cancer treatment and recovery, she’s found rowing is a perfect way for her to exercise and socialize.
“I’d heard about Dragon Boat racing, but didn’t know much about it. I went to a practice and saw women, just like me, out there paddling. Before cancer, I would kayak and ski, and after my diagnosis I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything anymore,” Kathy said. “It’s terrible when you’re used to being active and think that part of your life is over. That feeling motivated me to give this sport a try, and I’m so happy I did. I have the support, love and friendships from my teammates. I would be lost without the sport and them – we’ve gone through the same things, and we give each other the strength to keep going. We’re all in the same boat – literally and figuratively.”
Kathy was thrilled to learn about Juzo’s Dragon Boat sleeve. Compression helps her stay active when rowing and comfortable when traveling. She’s excited for the print that helps spread awareness of this sport.
Her teammate Deann Viebranz also rows in compression to manage her lymphedema.
“The sleeve gives me confidence that as long as I'm wearing it, I'll be alright,” she said.
Betsy Lambright’s sleeve also gives her confidence.
“The designs on the Juzo sleeves help me feel fierce with my paddle in my hands.”
Betsy, who joined the Dragon Dream Team in 2014, considers staying in shape and not having to worry about lymphedema as one of the greatest benefits of racing.
“After surviving treatment, I felt damaged and less than the person I had been. I didn't know how to move forward. Dragon boating has helped me learn that breast cancer is not my entire story, it's only a page in my story,” she said. “I love being out on the water and feeling the boat move from the strength of 20 breast cancer survivors.
Last year, the Dragon Dream Team took third place in the International Breast Cancer Survivor Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy alongside 4,000 participants. The team will compete in four races this season, which kicks off this summer. Toby looks forward to the races and spreading hope.
“When you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you have no idea if your life will ever be back to normal or even if you’ll live. This sport offers survivors hope because as we compete and travel to festivals all over the world, there are hundreds of thousands of others who are okay and alive.”
There are several resources available online if you want to join a team near you or start one. Once you do, be sure to sport the Juzo Dragon Boat sleeve or another from the Dragon Collection.