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Dragon Boat Races Benefit Cancer Survivors

Team Survivor members paddle their dragon boat.
Katie Schoolov
Team Survivor members paddle their dragon boat.
Cancer Survivros Race Dragon Boats

It’s not a Loch Ness monster or your imagination. Rather, the beasts seen circling Fiesta Island on any given Sunday are Dragon Boats.

The 40-foot-long, 400-pound boats resemble gigantic canoes that seat 20 paddlers, one drummer and a steersperson.

Brightly-colored dragon heads with jagged grins, fire red tongues and flaring nostrils only adorn the boat in competitions.


My team’s purple jerseys set us apart from the other 40 or so college and corporate teams racing in this year’s Dragon Boat Festival on Mission Bay.

Ronnie Woodrow, a teammate, giggles a bit, when describing our fierce-looking race boat.

“These boats are very cute. We pair up and sit in two rows of 10. We face forward, so it’s called paddling,” explains Woodrow.

Before getting in the boat, Woodrow, along with everyone, else pats the dragon’s head for luck. It’s a tradition that dates back to the first dragon boat race, nearly 2,400 years ago in China.

Legend has it, a popular warrior and poet Chu Yuan fell victim to evil plots by a new emperor. In desperation, Yuan flung himself into the Mi Lo River and drowned. Upon his death, loyal followers raced to recover his body before it was consumed by fishes.


The ancient water sport re-emerged into a modern international sport at the Hong Kong races in 1976. Now, 50 million people worldwide are competitive dragon boat paddlers.

But, you don’t have to be an athlete to paddle with my all-women team. The only requirement to be a member of Team Survivor San Diego is to have cancer.

Patricia Brennan, a founding member of Team Survivor, is from an Irish family with a strong family history of breast cancer.

“I was breast feeding my first daughter about three months post-delivery when I discovered a lump,” said Brennan.

Her father encouraged her to set up a survivors' team in San Diego.

“I actually found out about dragon boating when my dad sent me a clipping from a newspaper in Ireland,” Brennan said.

Team Survivor San Diego launched in 2008. It’s one of 50 international dragon boat survivor teams.

Jean Snow, an art instructor in Poway, had never paddled before joining the team.

“I had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and it was in my throat. I never paddled before, and now I’m addicted,” she exclaimed.

I became a fan of dragon boating when I joined Team Survivor, a few weeks after my last chemotherapy for stage 3 breast cancer.

Dr. Don McKenzie started the first cancer survivor team in 1996.
In the Same Boat Movie
Dr. Don McKenzie started the first cancer survivor team in 1996.

Breast cancer survivors are especially revered among racers. We are honored at each competition because of Canadian doctor Donald McKenzie. He

started the first cancer survivor team in 1996. After, his revolutionary study found dragon boat paddling prevented lymphedema, reduced surgical scarring and improved recovery in women who’d had mastectomies.

Nowadays, exercise is a standard recommendation for nearly all cancer patients.

But our exercise and twice weekly practices didn’t pay off as much as we’d hoped in our hometown festival.

We took home silver instead of gold.

Still our coach, Cheance Adir, a world-class paddler herself, reminded us of our win over something far more fierce than a dragon.

“You are strong, you can come back from this loss, you can do anything!” she cheered.

Team Survivor San Diego is part of a non-profit organization that provides free exercise activities, including dragon boat racing, yoga and walking groups. Women of all ages, all stages of cancer, treatment and recovery and all fitness levels are welcome. It is solely funded by donations.