All in the same boat - News & Updates • Breast Cancer Foundation NZ

All in the same boat

Members of dragon boating team Busting With Life are all in the same boat, literally and figuratively.

As one member, Donna, says, the 22 women would likely never have met, were it not for their common thread – a diagnosis of breast cancer.

The team’s mission is to inspire people to lead full and active lives after a breast cancer diagnosis and it’s safe to say they’re nailing the brief.

For Donna, she’s the fittest and healthiest she’s ever been after joining Busting With Life four years ago.

“I was sporty growing up, but I was never able to say ‘I’m competing at Regionals or Nationals’,” says Donna, something she can now cross off her list.

The Kindergarten teacher was diagnosed with breast cancer as a result of her annual mammogram in 2020. Her mother died of the disease 11 years earlier so she felt motivated to “get over it” for the sake of her children.

Through Busting With Life, not only has she regained strength and quality of life, but she’s found “her people” in the two dozen ladies in the team.

The link between dragon boating and breast cancer exists because of the work of Canadian sports medicine doctor Donald McKenzie, who set up his own team, Abreast in a Boat, for people who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996.

He wanted to challenge the idea that strenuous upper body exercise could increase risk of lymphoedema occurring in breast cancer patients.

For this reason, Dr McKenzie chose dragon boating, because unlike other sports, it is non-weight bearing and the paddling requires repetitive upper body motion.

In 1998, he published a research paper, sharing anecdotes from his team, who spoke to how much dragon boating helped them both physically and mentally following their diagnosis. No new cases of lymphoedema arose.

Busting With Life was set up that same year, and welcomes breast cancer survivors from across the Auckland region – there is no age restriction, or previous experience with dragon boating or any other sport needed.

I had the honour of joining Busting With Life for a training session on a calm Wednesday night at Auckland’s Lake Pupuke and it turns out dragon boating is more complex than I remember from my team building session 10 years ago.

Together, the team teach me the very specific body positions and motions needed to get the paddle into the water at the right angle, and then back out again to complete the cycle, all the while keeping to time with the person in front of you. At the back of the boat, the steer, or sweep, calls commands and encouragement, letting the team know when to speed up or slow down, or put more power into the stroke.

Try as I might, I can’t seem to work it out and after repeatedly hitting the paddle of the person in front of me with my own paddle, I instead pause and watch with awe as the ladies around me move in perfect unison.

The camaraderie is palpable and in the little pauses between drills everyone takes the time to look out for one another and share little pieces of advice, and praise.

Donna and team member Katherine are up near the front, telling a joke or two as they help to set the pace for the rest of the team.

Dragon boating has helped Katherine deal with the isolation she felt after having breast cancer. In August 2021, she moved to Auckland from Christchurch, just three days before the country fell into another Alert Level 4 lockdown. Her diagnosis came shortly after and like Donna’s, it also was a result of her (first) annual mammogram.

It was a shock and totally derailed her plans to return to study. But six months after finishing active treatment, Katherine joined Busting With Life and hasn’t looked back, saying it has helped her regain a sense of control over her life.

“Dragon boating is one thing that I do every week and am committed to for those three trainings. There’s 22 of you, and so you have to pull together as a team and try hard for everyone.”

Regaining control is an important aspect of dealing with your breast cancer diagnosis, says Meri Gibson, captain of Christchurch-based dragon boating Abreast of Life.

“When you get diagnosed with breast cancer, you feel like you’re in a vortex. But you need to be able to reclaim life and think: I’m in control now.”

“We often say the doctors saved our lives and dragon boating saved our spirit,” says Meri.

She joined the team about 20 years ago, initially intending to give it a go for six months: “But then, we competed in the National Championships, we won a gold medal and I was hooked.”

Meri has been involved with dragon boating ever since and is now a director on the board of the New Zealand Dragon Boat Association and the president of the International Breast Cancer Paddling Committee (IBCPC).

As well as Auckland and Christchurch, there are other dragon boating teams for women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer across Aotearoa New Zealand, including in the Bay of Plenty, Waikato, Marlborough and Wellington, says Meri.

You can search for teams in your area using our Breast Cancer Services Directory.