Breast cancer survivors find strength and brotherhood on a dragon boat


When Tammy Michelson got on a dragon boat for her very first race, she knew she was ready.

She had been training three times a week for the past few months with her team, Catch-22, on Lake Vancouver. Although she describes herself as “not athletic” or as a member of sports teams, she was there: perched on the narrow bench of a dragon boat, gripping her paddle and waiting for the horn that would set off the race.

Michelson said, “I put on my fierce face and thought, ‘Alright! I can do it! I’ve already done it. “

Indeed. She had done the hard work of paddling in unison with 19 other people to propel a heavy dragon boat across 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 shutdown. When Michelson resumed her job as a data analyst for the city of Vancouver, her colleague Laura Thornquist, Catch-22 dragon boat trainer, invited her to a practice.

Michelson got on a dragon boat, enjoyed the exercise and made new friends.

“The paddle, friendships and common goals are so rewarding for life,” Michelson said. “It was only because of breast cancer that I made these connections. These women are strong, resilient and support each other. My life is better – not because of breast cancer – but because of the people who are now part of my life. “

Her story of camaraderie on a dragon boat is a common thread that unites the breast cancer survivors of Catch-22. The shared brotherhood has built lasting friendships between team members who spend time together aboard 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. The day she was diagnosed, she went paddling with her team before returning home to speak with her family.

“I had to treat 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. Another paddler and one of her best friends, Gail Rogers, a 10-year breast cancer survivor, has set up a food brigade for her teammates to deliver meals to ensure Murphy is well fed for its treatment.

“It’s such a big 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 given her a positive attitude.

She thinks it’s important to share her story as a survivor: “When you talk to someone who has just been diagnosed, they may look at you and think, ‘Diagnosed 23 years ago, and she’s still here! ‘ “

Zellers said that paddling in a dragon boat team “has helped me and other survivors overcome the shock of being diagnosed with breast cancer and discover new and exciting parts of our lives.”

She added, “There is special tension with BCS (Breast Cancer Survivor) paddlers. There is comfort in being together.

Coach and breast cancer survivor Thornquist said: “When you have breast cancer you tend to fold in on yourself, but when breast cancer survivors get on the boat you can. see them sitting higher. Become stronger. I see people working very hard. Sometimes I have to restrain the survivors so they don’t push each other too hard.

International paddling

Catch-22 survivors were invited to paddle another team’s boat during a 2018 survivors regatta in Italy. They returned from the inspired experience to set up a Catch-22 subdivision for breast cancer survivors. Sometimes the team has practices only for survivors, but most practices are mixed teams of men and women, including survivors.

Thornquist, Zellers and several teammates competed in international breast cancer survivor regattas in Italy, Canada and Australia. The team’s breast cancer division plans to travel to New Zealand for the International Paddlers Commission Against Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Festival at Lake Karapiro in April 2023. The competition will feature 240 teams. representing 30 countries. Every person on every boat must be a breast cancer survivor.

Each paddler will pay for their own expenses, including travel, hotels and most meals. Team expenses of nearly $ 20,000 include registration fees, equipment, uniforms and more. Through various fundraising efforts, the team raised almost half of the money needed to participate in the regatta.

Thornquist said it helps breast cancer survivors “to have something on the horizon to look forward to. A goal to work towards.

However, the Catch-22 team is not just focusing on breast cancer.

“It’s more about building a team, being on the water and giving breast cancer survivors the chance to feel normal again – to forget about breast cancer for an hour,” said Thornquist.

Longtime paddler Sue Hammon has to wait a few weeks before she can join her Catch-22 teammates on the water. In July, she underwent surgery for invasive ductal carcinoma. As her teammates boarded a boat, she stood on the shore and wore a t-shirt that proclaimed “Catch-22: Power through paddle”. She plans to paddle with her team in New Zealand in 2023.

New paddler Michelson is also planning to paddle New Zealand for her first international breast cancer survivor regatta.

“When I was diagnosed I was really scared. Almost everything has changed in my life, ”Michelson said. “Having a whole new group of cool friends changed everything too. People who support me. I feel grounded now.

Susan Parrish: [email protected]

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