Áilín Quinlan talks to three women who beat breast cancer and found dragonboat racing to be an ideal form of physical and mental therapy.
IT’S tea time on a Tuesday evening, and Lapps Quay in Cork city is a hive of activity.
It’s Dragonboat Night, and, amid much chatter and laughter, the Cork Dragons — all breast-cancer survivors — gather at 6pm to take their seat in the long canoe-like boats.
Each dragonboat carries 18 people — 16 paddlers, a drummer, and a helmsman or woman — for an evening of fun on the waters of the River Lee.
“We might go as far as the Mercy Hospital or to Blackrock Castle. We usually spend a few hours on the water and have a cup of tea after,” says 44-year-old Caroline Warren, oncology massage therapist, mother-of-two, and breast cancer survivor from Bandon.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and leukaemia two years later.
“For the first diagnosis, I was in shock. I was 38 at the time. I always felt I was healthy and that breast cancer would not happen to me,” she recalls.
“I was a non- smoker and led a healthy active lifestyle, so I got a terrible shock.”
The diagnosis of leukaemia, however, left her furious: “I became angry as I felt I had done my turn with breast cancer and I was still getting over that, which involved a full mastectomy and chemotherapy.”
The treatment for leukaemia was rigorous, Caroline spent 100 days in isolation, undergoing chemotherapy, blood transfusions, and bone marrow biopsies.
“I always worry about the cancer returning. It’s always there at the back of my head but if you spend your whole life thinking about it you’re wasting your life.”
Caroline was one of the first members of Cork Dragons, which was established in 2012 and is a member of the Irish Dragonboat Association, which was established in 2010 and now has clubs all over the country.
She joined after reading the findings of the 1998 McKinsey Report, which highlights the benefits of dragon-boat paddling for people who have had a breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy or lymph node removal.
Caroline also became a Dragon, she says, “because it was a fun activity out on the water and there’s great camaraderie.
“The laughing and camaraderie is better than any chemotherapy or pill.” Cancer has changed her perspective — she continually works to reduce any negativity or stress in her life, and following her recovery, trained in oncology massage therapy, setting up the Touch Therapy Centre in the Cork suburb of Douglas.
“I am so glad to be able to do this and I continue to try and ensure that something positive can come out of something as rotten as a cancer diagnosis,” says Caroline, who is set to go international with the sport.
The Bandon-woman is one of 10 members of the Cork Dragons, joining fellow ‘dragons’ from clubs in Waterford, Limerick, Donegal, and Mayo on the 26-strong Wild Atlantic Warrior Dragonboat team.
The mission — to participate in the 2018 IBCPC Dragonboat festival in the Italian city of Florence next July.
The benefits of dragonboat paddling are strong, believes Darren Prince, a physical therapist specialising in the treatment of lymphoedema, a condition experienced by many breast cancer patients post-surgery, and a Dr Vodder-trained level three therapist.
“When a breast cancer patient has had treatment such as chemo, radiotherapy or surgery, the lymph nodes may be damaged or removed,” he explains.
“These are part of the body’s natural mechanism for removing fluid. If they are damaged or removed, fluid can build up in the affected limb and this can lead to swelling known as Lymphoedema. “
Appropriate exercise can assist the body to re-absorb this build-up of fluid, he explains, adding that dragonboat paddling requires an overarm motion which exercises the muscles in the arm and shoulder, in turn aiding the body’s lymphatic system to re-absorb this fluid.
However, Darren emphasises, it’s crucial to seek medical advice before commencing any exercise regime as, he warns, the wrong kind could exacerbate the problem.
The sport also has psychological benefits, he adds, because it involves working in a team context with people who have shared much the same experiences.
Caroline believes the sport has helped her significantly: “I haven’t had any problems with lymphoedema — and I had all the lymph nodes in the left armpit removed.
“I think the regular paddling has helped me avoid that plus I also believe the exercise has allowed me to keep the full range of movement on my left arm following mastectomy, by strengthening the muscles.” According to the latest statistics, there are nearly 3,000 new cases of breast cancer annually. Fifty to 60-year-olds account for the largest portion or 41% of new cases. Survival rates are continually improving — the latest statistics show they stand at just over 83% compared to just over 71% in 1994.
“Survival rates have improved dramatically — people are faster to report changes, treatment is better and we now have eight designed cancer centres,” says Naomi Fitzggibbon, cancer nurseline manager with the Irish Cancer Society.
Former secretary, mother-of-three and breast cancer survivor Lisa Power (41) from Kilmacow near Waterford city, is an enthusiastic dragon-boater. Lisa made the decision to paddle following her recovery from the condition, with which she was diagnosed in January 2013:
“I had a mastectomy in my left breast followed by removal of lymph nodes in my left arm, chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a
12-month-long infusion of Herceptin, an oncology drug. because of the type of cancer I had.
“ I was very upset at the diagnosis. It was an emotional roller coaster — only two months beforehand I had run the full 40 km Dublin marathon.
“I knew I had to fight but I didn’t know how I was going to do it,” she recalls, adding that at the time her young children were just five, six and nine years old.
“The treatment was very difficult and at one stage during the chemo I went into toxic shock and became very ill,” she recalls adding that having cancer completely transformed her perspective:
“It made me appreciate things more and made me more prepared to go out and do things and put myself out there far more.”
On top of that, she decided not to return to her job as a secretary, preferring instead, to become a stay-at-home mum and spend as much time as possible with her children:
“I no longer want to work til 6pm returning home at 7pm — I want to spend as much time as possible with the children, and not have them spending their days in school and childcare — I now live every day as if it was my last.”
Lisa heard about dragonboating from her late friend Marcella Sweeney who also had breast cancer: “She explained that it was proven to be very beneficial for upper body strength following mastectomy and she said that dragon boat paddling could help me avoid a recurrence of breast cancer.” In 2014 Marcella, who has since passed away from breast cancer, started a club in Waterford and Lisa started paddling.
“I found the paddling was fantastic for upper body strength.
“When my lymph nodes were first removed, I couldn’t lift my left arm over my head. Thanks to dragonboat paddling I now have full upper body strength and full movement. I also suffered from lymphoedema since the mastectomy and the paddling helps to keep it at bay.
“The exercise is marvellous — just being outdoors with the wind in my face, and the sound of the water; being with people who have gone through what you have gone through — I was instantly hooked.” She’s one of five members of the Waterford club preparing to join the Wild Atlantic Warriors in Italy next year.
She describes her fear of a recurrence of the disease “as a dark cloud” which hangs overhead.
“I fear the cancer returning every day — I don’t think a day goes without my thinking of it — it is always hanging over you.”
VEC tutor Caron Tierney (55) from Limerick city had no symptoms when a Breastcheck screening in late 2012 picked up breast cancer.
Married with two children now aged 23 and 19, Caron was shocked: “I had no symptoms,” she recalls.
“At the time the kids were 18 and 14 and all I could think of was the children — you want to be there for them.” She was diagnosed three weeks before Christmas and had a lumpectomy in January.
The treatment was gruelling — she had a severe reaction to chemotherapy and was left with overwhelming fatigue. Radiation treatment caused severe burns and she later discovered that she had to have treatment for a sonoma, which is a condition where fluid builds up in the cavity left following the removal of a tumour.
Caron too lives in fear of a recurrence. “You will always fear it, although the last six months that fear has receded a bit,” she says, adding that the experience changed her outlook on life.
“Prior to that, I would have taken a more cautious approach to life,” she says, adding that she would have postponed enjoyable activities such as travel until her children finished college — now she’s determined to see the world, and is one of the Wild Atlantic Warriors team travelling to compete in Florence next July.
“I now make more of the present and don’t postpone the good things in life as much,” she explains, adding that after seeing a TV programme about dragonboating she co-founded the Limerick club in October 2016 with a number of other people.
“Physically I’m much fitter and more active. I also find it great as a stress release. It helps you re-build your confidence. I found that it brought my life back,” she says, adding that she firmly believes the paddling has helped her with the lymphoedema she has experienced in her chest since surgery.
“I find it relieves the swelling.
For more information visit dragonboat.ie
Post-breast cancer tips
* Research into post-cancer treatment and the evidence emphasises the importance of being physically active and eating a well-balanced diet — no smoking, drinking alcohol moderately.
* Lymphoedema is one of the c side effects of breast cancer surgery. Not everyone gets it and it’s not possible to predict who will, so after surgery report any pain or swelling or skin changes.
* Seek support for your emotional wellbeing — either from the Daffodil Centres, from the Cancer Nurseline, from a support group or from a therapist. If you feel in need of support contact the Irish Cancer Society.
* Fatigue is one of the many common side effects of treatment Irish Cancer Society
it can take time for it to dissipate. Research has shown regular exercise can help alleviate the symptoms of fatigue. This can be something like going for a walk each day for 30 minutes.
For information on the other side effects of cancer treatment, contact the Irish Cancer Society at www.cancer.ie or Cancer Nurseline: Freephone 1800 200 700 or at 01 231 0500
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