Less than 20 years ago, a UBC professor debunked the popular belief that breast cancer survivors (BCS) should avoid rigorous upper body exercise — he asked a team of BCS women to paddle a dragon boat.
This weekend, that paddling tradition will continue when Parksville resident Mary Connelly joins the International Pink Sisters dragon boat team in Sarasota, FL, for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Dragon Boat Festival on Oct. 24-26.
“It’s more for awareness, less for winning,” said Connelly, who is team co-ordinator and founding member of the Pink Sisters.
Unlike many teams at the festival in Florida, the Pink Sisters do not train together year-round. Instead, the team is made up of BCS paddlers from around the world.
Connelly founded the group in 2006 after she met many women who wanted to paddle while travelling around festivals with other breast cancer teams. “I thought, ‘We’re all breast cancer survivors. Why don’t we join together?’” she said.
Due to the expense of travel (individuals have to pay their own way), the Pink Sisters’ roster changes every year. Word of mouth brings new members into the boat to join a small core group that are able to return for each dragon boat festival. This year, there are three countries represented in the boat: New Zealand, the U.S. and Canada. Connelly is the only team member from the Parksville Qualicum Beach area. All in all, 23 women are going to Sarasota. It’s a 20-person team, a steerer, a drummer, and a spare paddler.
Connelly said the Pink Sisters will get two practices in when they meet in Florida, where the festival has provided boats, paddles and lifejackets. They will race four races as a team and then will send two of their members to join other pairs in a conglomerate team.
As in previous years, the team also will be joined by Sara the Teddy Bear, the team mascot who made her first appearance in 2011, and a copy of Choosing to Smile, a collection of stories written by cancer survivors.
As one might expect, there is a lot of planning involved in getting an international team together for a race. According to Connelly, everyone in the boat has a job, from designing the racing uniform to organizing the fees and they keep in constant communication. “It’s the crew that makes this work,” she said. “If we work together on land, we’ll work together on water.”
Breast cancer dragon boat festivals run by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission happen only once every four years. However, the Pink Sisters try to get a team together each year to race at festivals with a non-BCS focus. In the past they have raced in Singapore, Italy, Israel, Canada, Switzerland and the U.S. In fact, they were also the first dragon boat team made solely of breast cancer survivors to paddle in Turkey and the Philippines.
Alongside racing and visiting all those countries, the Pink Sisters have worked to support other teams. According to the team’s website, they assist other breast cancer survivors form their own teams and regatta organizers to include breast cancer division within their programs. They’ve also helped introduced the traditional dragon boat carnation ceremony, which honour survivors and their communities, to several countries including the Philippines.
The Pink Sisters have also offered support on a personal level. “We’re able to use our worldwide connections to help people with cancer” such as helping to find the right cancer specialist, explained Connelly.
With each race and each country visited, the International Pink Sisters prove again that breast cancer survivors can live full lives after fighting the disease and that it’s a little easier doing so with the support of a team. As their motto says: “Together we survive.”
To learn more about the Pink Sisters, visit their website pinksisters.ca