Five years ago, Laura Brown dipped a toe — or paddle, as it were — into dragon boat racing and fell in love. "It’s a great way to relieve stress," Brown, a care coordinator at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus, tells us. "Being out on the water is therapeutic. It makes you feel alive." That’s a feeling Brown and her teammates don’t take for granted. Every member of her dragon boat team, the Mammoglams, is a breast cancer survivor. "We’re all grateful to still be here," she says.
The Jacksonville-based team does most of its paddling on the Intercoastal Waterway, where they enjoy dolphin sightings and picture-perfect sunsets. Earlier this month, they traded those views for the hills of Tuscany when they headed to Florence, Italy, for the IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival, hosted by the International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission. The event, held every four years, drew 129 teams from 17 countries. And while the schedule included two days of racing on the Arno River, the festival was more celebration than competition.
"Whether you won the race or not was secondary," says Denise Rubin, a point of care coordinator at Mayo Clinic and a member of the Mammoglams. "We all know the fragility of life and that we have won just by being there and having the strength to paddle on."
As we’ve reported previously, dragon boating gained a connection to breast cancer some 20 years ago, when a Canadian doctor challenged the conventional wisdom that advised against exercise for breast cancer patients. "He believed the teamwork could provide emotional support while the upper body exercise would help prevent lymphedema," according to MayoClinicHealthSystem.org. Subsequent research has supported that belief, and there are now around 150 teams of breast cancer survivors who race dragon boats throughout the world.
But it felt like just one team in Florence, we're told. Especially at the end of the event, where representatives from each team paddled together in a closing ceremony to honor those who have passed away from breast cancer. During the ceremony, each survivor dropped a flower in the river in memory of someone lost to the disease. "Watching the ceremony makes you feel grateful to be in remission," Brown tells us. "We were there to paddle for others who can’t."
If you're in the Jacksonville area and you’d like to give dragon boating a try, you can learn more on the Jacksonville Dragon Boat Club website. Then paddle over and leave a comment below before using the handy social media tools atop this page to share this story with others.