Three Abreast In A Boat
Wendy Matsubuchi-Bremner calls her mother a quiet hero. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, Esther Matsubuchi endured months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. It wasn’t until three years after the treatments that the pain from the lumpectomy dissipated. Esther dealt with the cancer and its after effects the same way she dealt with being interned in the Slocan Valley with her family as a young girl—with stoicism and quiet dignity. Which is not to say she took things lying down—far from it.
While recovering from breast cancer surgery and treatment she developed diabetes—a disease for which exercise is prescribed. The problem was that doctors discouraged breast cancer survivors from even moderate exercise, particularly if it involved the upper body muscles. One in four breast cancer survivors would develop lymphedema, a painful condition which causes a debilitating and permanent swelling of the arms and it was believed that using the upper body would trigger the condition. This precluded even activities like playing the piano, gardening and knitting, all of which Esther loved.
In 1996, she was among a group a breast cancer survivors that was approached by Dr. Don McKenzie, a University of British Columbia sports-medicine expert who believed that upper body exercise would not only not bring on lymphedema, but it would help women regain control over their lives and bodies following treatment.
Dr. McKenzie settled on dragon boating, an activity that had exploded in popularity following Expo 86 in Vancouver, as an ideal way of testing his theory. Not only does dragon boat racing require great upper body strength, it is a sport that demands crew members work together towards a common objective. As Dr. McKenzie later wrote, “Dragon boating is a team sport that builds harmony and a feeling of togetherness. It is aesthetically pleasing and represents honest physical work that results in predictable improvements in fitness. The dragon boats can hold 20–24 paddlers, and this provides an opportunity to work with a large group at one time. Vancouver’s Dragon Boat Festival, in which we have participated annually since 1996, is one of the world’s largest, and thus we had a great opportunity to showcase the results of our program. Above all, dragon boating is an exhilarating experience that every paddler has enjoyed.”
Esther was one of 24 women who agreed to test Dr. McKenzie’s hypothesis by creating the first Abreast In A Boat dragon boat team. The women, who ranged in age from 31 to 62, were given a specially designed exercise and training regime and were continuously monitored by a sports medicine physician, a physiotherapist and a nurse. In April of 1996 the group assembled at the False Creek Racing Canoe Club for their first training session on the water—a new experience for the vast majority of them. Following twice-weekly training sessions that ran through April, May and June, the Abreast In A Boat team was entered in the Vancouver Dragon Boat Festival in the novice category, competing against mixed male-female teams who were, on average, two decades their junior.
While the women didn’t cross the finish line ahead of the other boats, they did cross their own personal threshold of victory—completing the race with a profound sense of accomplishment and pride. In doing so, they became role models for thousands of women who have followed in their footsteps.
As far as Dr. McKenzie’s theory goes, not a single woman on the team developed lymphedema, leading to changes in the way breast cancer survivors are counselled by their doctors.
15 years after that first race, Esther Matsubuchi continues to paddle, serving as a living reminder that life after breast cancer can be fulfilling and meaningful.
Following the success of that first team in 1996 and inspired by women like Esther, teams sprang up around the world and there are now six Abreast In a Boat crews in the lower mainland alone (plus the North Shore Dragon Busters), and over 160 worldwide.
Patricia Tanaka, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998, took up the sport in 1999. Says Patricia, “I was fortunate to know someone who already belonged to Abreast In A Boat. She put me in touch with Bunny Rosse who has a wonderfully reassuring way of speaking with you. And you go to the prospective novice meeting and meet so many warm and welcoming healthy-looking women that you think ‘I’d like to join this group even though I have no clue of what dragon boating entails or even what size or shape a dragon boat is.’
“It is challenging especially in the first season when you think—this is so hard and I’m cold and wet and splashing everyone, I have blisters & bruises on various body parts and I ache! And you are absolutely horrified to be hitting other paddles because you haven’t got the timing, much less the technique. Then at some point you realize you are pretty well in sync most of the time and you haven’t drowned anybody with your splashing and the boat is moving through the waves and you are part of the engine moving this huge heavy monster. In fact the boat is gliding and you are alive and in a beautiful place.”
Vivian Omori is a more recent convert, taking up dragon boating in 2008. Unable to swim, she was sceptical about joining AIAB until her yoga teacher, who was a member of AIAB told her, ‘You don’t have to push the boat, just paddle.’ Having always been intrigued with dragon boating, she decided that she didn’t want to be on her deathbed talking about all the things she hadn’t tried.
She made the mental leap and found the support for new members encouraging. “The organization prepares you by letting you know you have to be fit and giving you a manual with the recommended exercises. I found the first regatta which was the Deep Cove Dash for Charity the toughest even though it was only 200 metres or so. After that, the 500 metre races were easier for some reason. We practice and the strength and stamina just builds up. I think there are very few people who get in a boat for the first time and figure out how to paddle properly. After three seasons of practices, regattas and workshops, the process is slowly coming together for me.”
Asked about the benefits of dragon boat racing, Patricia, who is now President of AIAB, is enthusiastic. “My physical condition is better since successfully paddling a dragon boat requires endurance and strength and coordination. There is a bond with so many people who have lived through your experience, and in many cases recurrences, but all maintaining a positive attitude.
“There is involvement with many agencies that raise funds to find a cure and that also encourage survivors to explore activities that will enhance health and lifestyle.
“There is the learning to be vocal about breast cancer and the need to keep working to find a cure for it and all cancers. There is the learning to reach out to other survivors and their families to offer encouragement, support and optimism. Just tonight I was speaking with a friend who was diagnosed this week.”
Vivian agrees that being part of AIAB is about more than just fitness. “I joined to paddle and didn’t think I needed a breast cancer support group. I soon realized that AIAB is as much a support group as a dragon boat society. I found the opportunity to talk about breast cancer, the treatments, side effects, etc. with people who understood what I was talking about and not have to worry about boring them, very therapeutic. If you have a question or have a problem about something related to breast cancer, it’s not just your crew but all the members of AIAB who will help.”
Despite the positive aspects of being part of AIAB, Vivian acknowledges that there is painful side, given that all of the members are dealing with cancer. “It’s not all good times. In the short time I’ve been a member, there have been seven or eight paddlers who have died. But that’s the reality of the disease. And conversely, there are many members who have had recurrences and have been treated successfully. One member of my crew was told her cancer had metastasized 14 years ago and she’s still fine—which is very encouraging.”
As the three women prepare for another season on the water, they look forward to joining their teammates, old and new, in their shared goal: to cross the finish line together, alive to the possibilities that life has to offer. All three are grateful for the opportunity that has been given to them to not only reclaim their lives, but to inspire other women to do the same.
Standing with her daughter and grandson at the Nikkei Centre, clutching her dragon boat paddle, Esther says, “I’m sure I would have passed on by now if it weren’t for Abreast In A Boat. I would have lived a very uninspired, passive life, with the thoughts of The Big C looming over me. Fitness is stressed over and over, and we dragon boaters sign a commitment form at the beginning of each season, to do our aerobics and weight training several times each week throughout the year. Teamwork stresses that we are all in the same boat and that we must pull together.” And you know she means every word.
For more information on Abreast In A Boat, visit www.abreastinaboat.com where you’ll find information about the society and dragon boat experiences as well as who to contact to join. There are novice stories and photos of the many events. Come and watch the teams paddle at Science World in the Women’s Regatta on May 28 and in the huge Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival on June 11. It is not required that members of Abreast In A Boat paddle, they can join the society just for the support offered in other activities throughout the year.
The Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation BC/Yukon Chapter also has a free speakers series on breast health starting March 8. Visit www.cbcf.org
In Their Own Words
Patricia Tanaka •EstherMatsubuchi • VivianOmori
Esther, you were a member of that first team in 1996, which was an experiment, really. I’m sure you had no idea that it would grow into what it has today. Tell me about the experience.
Esther Matsubuchi When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989, the rate of breast cancer in women was 1 in 9. I felt strong and hoped that I would save nine women from getting this disease. For me, breast cancer had been synonymous with lymphodema. A friend’s mother down the street had it and it was a real handicap: all her clothes had to be remade to fit her arm. I’ve always been an avid gardener, but when diagnosed with breast cancer, I knew I had to stop because even raking was too risky a motion for a breast cancer survivor. Gardening could also involve thorn pricks from roses, which could lead to infection, which could lead to lymphodema. I was so happy that a fuchsia rose was developed by Brad of Select Roses of Langley and named in honour of AIAB in 2009: the “Fortitude Rose.” I immediately bought one to plant front and centre of my garden.
The first team was an experiment to see if repetitive upper body exercising would lead to lymphodema. Repetitive motions were discouraged in those days: even carrying a shoulder bag on the affected side was taboo. I had nothing to lose and had a good feeling about joining the 1996 dragon boat experiment. I had envied others who paddled and at last one of my dreams would come true. At least after this experiment, the newly-diagnosed women wouldn’t even have to think about any further physical limitations, as we did before 1996.
At our first meeting, we were in awed disbelief as Dr. McKenzie showed a video demonstrating dragon boating. Later, we were told it was in slow-motion. During my first dragon boat race, I thought I was going to die. It was a 650m race and we had never practised a race that long before. I kept paddling, but in my mind, it was going to be my last race. Of course, since then, I’ve changed my mind.
Patricia and Vivian, Can you talk a little about the experience of being diagnosed with breast cancer—the thoughts and feelings you went through.
Patricia Tanaka Initially there is shock, then numbness and suddenly huge decisions to make in a very short time. You try to understand all the technical medical implications about stage of the disease, percentages of survival, cure rates, courses of treatment while the refrain of “Cancer I have Cancer” runs in your head. And you think about how your spouse and your family will feel—how terrible it will be for them to hear the diagnosis. And how will you tell your friends and colleagues?
Vivian Omori It wasn’t an absolute shock since my younger sister was diagnosed five months prior—but still unexpected. The realization that living to an old age (my mother is 92) was likely not in my future was like getting smacked in the face. I was just determined to get through the treatments. I told the oncologist that if I had to get cancer, breast cancer was the one to get because there was so much research and money poured into treatments and finding a cure.
Abreast In A Boat is really about much more than paddling, isn’t it?
PT It has meant meeting and becoming friends with people who expand your horizons and experiences. It has meant becoming competitive in a sport when you previously never felt the need to be part of an athletic group. It has also provided me with the opportunity to work with this amazing group of women in our race against breast cancer.
What is your favourite dragon boat memory?
PT There are so many great memories—probably one of the best was winning a bronze medal in my first regatta—the huge Vancouver Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan) International Dragon Boat Festival back in 1999.
VO My first year, my son and daughter came to watch the Breast Cancer race at the Women’s Regatta. It was about five months after my treatments were completed. My crew didn’t win but the kids were proud of me. I think it helped to show them that I wasn’t a fragile patient anymore.
Where is your favourite place to paddle?
PT While all of the five venues (Barnet Marine Park, Deas Slough, False Creek, Fort Langley and Richmond) are wonderful places to paddle my favourite is Barnet Marine Park on Burrard Inlet. There are eagles, seals, ducks, and herons that share the water with you as well as the beauty of the inlet.
VO The Deas Slough. It’s a calm and beautiful venue with herons, eagles & seals. It also has a pub close by.
EM My favourite place to paddle is False Creek. The water is usually ideal, and Granville Island is a great place to be after practises. They even give us free parking on our practise days. Abreast In A Boat is very welcomed there.
It looks like a pretty safe sport, but like any water sport there must be an element of danger. Have you had any close calls over the years?
PT There are the occasional collisions of boats during races as it is relatively easy to veer off course in races or rough water. However no one I know has ever been injured even when knocked overboard.
A few years ago paddling in Burrard Inlet our boat was swamped by a speeding tugboat’s wake. The waves came over our bow and knocked the drummer off her perch and the front two paddlers were pushed back off their seats. While we continued to paddle and bail the boat sank and we ended up floating around the boat which slowly overturned. There is a reason why we all wear life vests while on the boats even on the calmest sunniest days. One paddler was able to call for help with her cell phone while floating on her back. We nicknamed her Otter. It took a while to be rescued so we were a bit concerned for some of our crew mates who were not quite as robust.
EM Dragon boating in Vancouver is safe, but in New Zealand, the boats are constructed differently, and tip very easily. In Wellington, at the international regatta, our boat capsized. When I saw the newspaper pictures of us in the water, I laughed as I noticed my AIAB cap was still on. The water was really choppy, and the winds were very strong. I heard the loudspeakers say “beware of the sharks” and the commentator pointed them out!
How do you welcome in new members?
PT We welcome novices at a special introductory meeting and they are also invited to paddle with some experienced members to get a feel for the boat and team work. Novices are also given special recognition at AIAB events and post a diary of their season on the website. Novices often have “buddies” who they can talk to at anytime about paddling and their cancer experience.
EM I’m entering my 16th year and I have been instrumental in finding new members since I joined AIAB. When I hear about a new cancer person I tell them about our special boat. I even keep in touch with a woman who was in depression, but who came out of it after associating with our group.
I get a strong feeling that much of the appeal of dragon boating is the camaraderie and the teamwork.
VO When we’re practicing, it’s a lot of work and fun times. We tend to laugh a lot even though the coaches are very serious about the practices. They are also very safety-conscious so even if I don’t swim, I’ve never had occasion to be afraid. When we’re in a race, we paddle hard and strive to keep in time as getting the boat moving is really dependant on everybody being in sync.
PT There is something very healing being out on the water working together with others who have survived the same frightening and dreaded disease. It is empowering to get the boat up and moving and surging through the waves regardless of the weather.
Breast cancer can occur in men, though it is much rarer. Have you given thought to having men join the team?
VO The only criteria for joining AIAB is that you’re able to keep fit and you’re a breast cancer survivor. The gender issue has never been raised and we often speculate when/if we’ll have a male paddler join us.
PT So far our efforts to recruit haven’t been successful but perhaps that will change with this article.
It’s somewhat ironic that dragon boating originated in Asia, yet there is a real stigma in Asia when it comes to talking about cancer. Are there Asian dragon boat teams?
EM Talking about cancer is low on the conversation list in Asia. I remember my parents coming home from a funeral, and wondering if the deceased had cancer because he hadn’t looked well lately—he’d looked pale they would say, but they would never talk about it.
PT AIAB has helped breast cancer teams to get started world-wide and there are teams in Shanghai, Malaysia and Singapore. In 2003 I was on an AIAB crew that travelled to Singapore to participate in a regatta there at the invitation of the Singapore team which AIAB helped start. The Singapore team was a mixed survivor and supporter team as women there needed a family member or friend to paddle with them. That may have changed with our participation and winning the breast cancer challenge race.
What would you say to breast cancer survivors who are thinking about trying dragon boating?
PT Give it a try, even if you never have been keen on physical activity or team sports—you may surprise yourself. We would love to have you experience it with us. It will enrich your life in many ways: emotionally, mentally and physically.
VO I’m not athletic but I love it, even if it often means practicing in the rain. The paddling, the camaraderie amongst all the members, the support, the regattas at different venues, the celebrations after—the list goes on. One of the recommendations to avoid a recurrence of breast cancer is exercise, and dragon boating is a great motivator to exercise and keep fit. Try it. You commit to 2 ½ months and if you don’t like it, at least you’ll know!
Anything you’d like to add?
PT Our mission is to raise breast cancer awareness and to encourage those who have experienced breast cancer to lead full and active lives. And get your mammograms done!
EM Adding to Patricia’s last words, don’t forget BSE—breast self-examination.