Breast cancer survivors 'paddle on' in dragon boats

Correne Michelle O'Kieffe, (second from left) director and founder of Embracing All Real Surivors with members outside the Dragon Boat Centre in Chaguaramas. From left are Heather Thomas, Rubina Roopchan, Ettelyn Caldero and Chrissie Roopchan. - SUREASH CHOLAI
Correne Michelle O'Kieffe, (second from left) director and founder of Embracing All Real Surivors with members outside the Dragon Boat Centre in Chaguaramas. From left are Heather Thomas, Rubina Roopchan, Ettelyn Caldero and Chrissie Roopchan. - SUREASH CHOLAI

Breast cancer survivors have found one more way to take charge of their lives and their health, and show what they can do – dragon boating.

There was an official launch of dragon boating for breast cancer survivors by the Trinidad and Tobago Dragon Boat Federation (TTDBF) on May 14 at MovieTowne, Port of Spain. International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) president Meri Gibson, who had been diagnosed and treated for cervical, ovarian and breast cancer over the years, was there to share her experience and explain the benefits.

These benefits include feelings of camaraderie, a sense of renewed fitness and health, opportunities to promote awareness of a full and enjoyable life after breast cancer, and enhanced self-confidence and control of one’s life.

The Embracing All Real Survivors Cancer Support Foundation (Ears) has already started one team and, so far, has ten members. But Gibson would like to see at least three teams of 20 coming out of Trinidad and Tobago.

Correne Michelle O'Kieffe, director and founder of Embracing All Real Surivors. - SUREASH CHOLAI

Correne Michelle O’Kieffe, director of Ears, believes it would help raise breast cancer awareness and show that, even after being diagnosed, breast cancer survivors could live well and enjoy life.

O’Kieffe told WMN that about a decade ago the TTDBF tried to create a similar team but it was not sustained. Then, early last year, the federation contacted Ears about the possibility of creating a breast cancer dragon boat team and told its members about the IBCPC as well as other dragon boat organisations.

She said, at that point, the Pan American Dragon Boat Federation was already in discussions with the commission about forming a breast cancer team.

So, the Ears members decided to try it and had their first test run in May 2021.

“When we went out there and did our first session, we felt the energy, we enjoyed it, we definitely wanted to do it.”

The women were excited to proceed but covid19 restrictions stopped them from doing so. The presidents of the Pan American and TT federations, Franco Siu Chong and Keith Dalip respectively, kept encouraging and supporting them.

Meri Gibson (centre, standing), president of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission, with members of Embracing All Real Surivors, before heading out in a dragon boat in Chaguaramas. - SUREASH CHOLAI

As a result, the TT federation included the position of chairperson of the breast cancer survivors committee on its executive and appointed O’Kieffe in early April, this year.

“I encouraged them to create the position to have someone responsible for creating the breast cancer team. Because of the involvement of the team with IBCPC it needs to have someone who could relate to the experience of breast cancer survivors. Of course I didn’t expect them to appoint me but I’m proud to be part of this experience.”

The Ears teams plans to register with the commission by the end of the month. It will be the first breast cancer dragon boat team in TT and the Caribbean, and will make TT the 34th country to join.

“It’s not only for exercise or competitive purposes because it does make you feel more energised. It’s also about camaraderie, team-building, and meeting others who share similar stories. It’s creating a world-wide family of breast cancer survivors. It feels like you can leave everything on land and go out into the ocean and forget the rest of the world because you’re doing something you really enjoy with people who you consider to be just like you.”

Breast cancer paddlers

O’Kieffe explained that, before 1996, the prevailing medical view was that women who had been treated for breast cancer should avoid any rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema.

According to WebMD, lymphedema is often a side effect of cancer treatment. It occurs when extra fluid builds up in the tissue when the lymphatic system is not working well, usually because your lymph nodes were damaged or removed.

However, in 1996, physician and professor at the University of British Columbia, Canada, Dr Don McKenzie, started a programme to determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors. He trained 24 breast cancer volunteers in a gym and introduced them to dragon boat paddling as it is a strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise.

After three months, none of them developed lymphedema. Instead, they felt healthier and happier. So, later that year, they entered a dragon boat competition and became the first team of breast cancer survivors to enter any sporting competition.

They kept paddling and competing and inspired others in Canada and the US to form breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams.

The movement spread internationally and, in 2010, the IBCPC was formed to raise awareness of breast cancer and that survivors could lead normal lives, as well as to encourage breast cancer survivors to participate in the sport. Part of that promotion is a Dragon Boat Festival which takes place every four years.

Embracing All Real Survivors Cancer Support Foundation has started a dragon boat team which so far has ten members. - SUREASH CHOLAI

O’Kieffe said the breast cancer survivors committee recently met with the Ministry of Health’s Education Division and Mental Health Unit. The unit, she said, planned to create a support team for the breast cancer dragon boat members.

So far, the support team includes lymphedema therapists Karrie Ann De Gannes and Shannon John, as well as strength and conditioning coach Bryant Snaggs. She said other medical professionals have been engaged including a breast surgeon, a consultant radiologist, and a dietician.

The ministry support team should be available for the members of all the dragon boat teams to keep track of their health.

Through various stakeholders and outreach programmes, the unit is also expected to assist with advocating for survivors, as well as educate breast cancer patients/survivors on how they could improve their lives and the benefits of the sport. And the TT federation would provide training.

O’Kieffe said the members do not want sympathy. They just want to improve and the professional teams were providing that encouragement and support.

Members of Embracing All Real Survivors paddle their dragon boat at Williams Bay, Chaguaramas. - SUREASH CHOLAI

“A breast cancer survivor can feel limited in what sport they can do. Most of us could walk a 5K but can’t run it. But these international dragon boat teams have been competing in regular competitions and doing quite well.

“Some people already have doubts from being diagnosed – they had negative emotions, some lost their families or their jobs, or their ability to play sports. Some of us went through so much loss but this feels like adding something instead. It feels like we are part of the rest of the world.”

O’Kieffe is encouraging all breast cancer survivors in TT to create a team or sign up to be part of a team regardless of their age or gender.


"Breast cancer survivors ‘paddle on’ in dragon boats"

More in this section