Celebrating 20 years on the river

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They thought they could. So they did.

Twenty years ago, a group of breast cancer survivors set out to prove there was a whole lot more to life after breast cancer. Women Alike ABreastARiver dragon boat team was born.

These wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, friends formed the group in New Glasgow after attending a retreat for breast cancer survivors at the Tim Hortons Camp. Member Faye Visser-Booth recalls the group, at the time, was discussing the work of Canadian sports medicine specialist Don McKenzie who, in a 1998 paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, described how he started a dragon boat team in Vancouver in 1996 for women with a history of breast cancer believing the activity would benefit breast cancer survivors as it provided strenuous upper body activity and would provide a socially supportive environment.

Member Jessie Parkinson adds, “That was the dawn of dragon boat racing for breast cancer survivors.”

From this, the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission was formed. Every four years they run an international race; the first was held in Vancouver and last year it was held in Florence, Italy.

Another member, Cindy Skinner says, “Those original 24 women and that trial was truly inspirational. Interestingly, of those 24 pioneering women, 22 are still alive, still active and still involved to some degree. That’s truly inspiring to any breast cancer survivor.”

And the local group is not that far behind. The Pictou County group started in 1998 and their first dragon boat was floated in 1999, just 20 years ago. That first boat cost approximately $20,000. Women Alike ABreastARiver dragon boat team had the first dragon boat east of Montreal, and now have their second boat. The group, which ranges in age from early 50s to late 70s, continues with the purpose of that original team which may have had different faces, but a shared purpose: to support each other, to exercise and have fun.

Visser-Booth says, “When I had my mastectomy 14 years ago, they told me I wasn’t allowed to lift anything over five pounds. Ever. I wasn’t allowed to do this, I wasn’t allowed to do that. And I thought, ‘That’s not going to happen’.”

A lot has changed since then, and the women say that is partly because of dragon boat racing.

The group practices Tuesday and Thursday evenings on the East River for six months of the year. Many are also members of the Pictou County YMCA — which gives them a break on memberships — and they do their own workouts for the other months.

Skinner says, “There’s new research that supports that physical activity of any sort supports a reduction in occurrence for women … a minimum of 30 minutes a day doing whatever it is you’re passionate about.”

Parkinson, who was 48 when she was diagnosed — the first time — laughs, “I was a slug,” before being diagnosed. She was actually in Vancouver when the first breast cancer dragon boat team was formed, although she was not part of it. She began with the local team in 2005 when she moved back to Pictou County. “Faye talked me into it.”

Visser also began in 2005. She had her surgery in March and was on the boat in July.

Skinner, who is co-chair of the team, and boat captain Darlene Benoit have each been involved for three years.

Visser chairs the anniversary committee and says there is lots planned to celebrate the anniversary at the 18th annual Race on the River this weekend.

“We have nine breast cancer survivor teams coming,” Visser says. They are coming from Princeton, New Jersey; Barrie, ON; Newfoundland; Cape Breton; Truro; Dartmouth; Moncton; Saint John and the county team. For the teams that are flying in and will be here on the Thursday before the Dragon Boat Festival weekend when the WomenAlike will be participating, Parkinson is hosting them at a barbecue at her home.

“Our theme for the anniversary is Butterflies and Fairies Love Life. So on Friday night, all the breast cancer teams will be assembling at Carmichael Park and we’ll all be dressed as butterflies or fairies.” George Street Bridge will be closed to traffic and the dancing dragon will dance the teams across the bridge into the Dragon Boat festival’s opening ceremonies. The rest of the teams will be stationed by the TD bank and will join the breast cancer survivors at that point. Opening ceremonies will be held, complete with a live band, and fireworks will be set off.

“We really want to encourage everyone to come out,” encourages Parkinson.

WomenAlike will be racing as usual during Saturday’s Race on the River event which, this year, includes 44 teams.

During the emotional Carnation Ceremony, seven boats of breast cancer survivors will be side by side with their arms locked together. This ceremony is known to be powerful, emotional and poignant.

Skinner encourages public support of this event: “Particularly the Carnation Ceremony, to support those who have survived, pay homage to those who have passed on. Because it is one in three women who get breast cancer.”

After the Carnation Ceremony, the survivors and their support people will go to the Pictou County Wellness Centre for a banquet and dance; more than 230 people will be there. Central Nova MP Sean Fraser will pipe in the troupe.

In support of the special anniversary, the Town of New Glasgow has planted pink and white flowers in its flower baskets hanging throughout downtown, has painted the familiar upright piano by the waterfront pink, and has placed a number of pink painted bicycles with pink flowers in their front baskets throughout the area.

Breast cancer is no longer a taboo subject. The group welcomes all breast cancer survivors — male or female — to contact them for help and support — and to see what all of the fun is about.

They row in faith, they row in solidarity and they row in hope — for a cure. Paddles up! Women Alike ABreastARiver are celebrating in style!

Members of the WomenAlike ABreastARiver Dragon Boat team include, from the left: Faye Visser-Booth, Jessie Parkinson, Cindy Skinner and Darlene Benoit. (Jardine photo)