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Warriors of Hope looking forward to competing on ice

It’s in a canoe, but the paddles are picks.

The Warriors of Hope North Bay dragon boat has been put to bed for the season.

In existence since 1999, the Warriors of Hope Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat Racing Team has been bringing breast cancer survivors together, both male and female, providing support and fundraising for breast cancer research.

A crew consists of 22 people; 20 paddlers plus a steersperson and a drummer.

Team members have garnered a reputation for being a force to be reckoned with at the highest competitive level.   

The team had its sights set on competing at the Montreal Dragon Boat Challenge and Festival in July but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, they felt it necessary to withdraw from the competition as a health precaution.

“Unfortunately, we had to pull ourselves out of the Montreal competition because of the air quality. We have to be really cognizant of our immune systems because our immune systems are all compromised. So, it is health first, and that’s basically how we based our decision,” explained incoming team captain and breast cancer survivor Carol Philbin

“It was not an easy decision, and it was very disappointing but nevertheless, we said no we can’t do it. It is a fine line because you want to compete and push away the realities of our health, but you can’t.”

A few months later it was paddles up at the Christie Lake Dragon Boat Festival, with the team competing in the Women’s Division 200m races, earning silver in the B Division, followed by 1st place in the 100m Mystery Race, with the front half of the paddlers facing backward, and third in the “Back it Down Race,” where they paddled backward.  

“There was no breast cancer survivor division,” explained Philbin “So, we were competing with the population at large.”

As Philbin explains, it was a very different competition.

“We actually did well in all of the races,” Philbin laughed.

The next competition they’re considering involves water, but it will be frozen.

“We’re looking at registering for the Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival in February.

It’s in a canoe, but the paddles are picks. You use the same technique, and you just pick. It’s part of the Winterlude Festival,” shared Philbin.  

“We had registered last year but it was cancelled because they do it on Dow’s Lake and it wasn’t frozen. So, we thought, let’s try again this year.”

The Warriors of Hope have a solid reputation. 

In the summer of 2022, the team brought home hardware from the Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver.  

“They’re known for having a very robust breast cancer survivor category,” Philbin pointed out.  

It was at that international competition that the Warriors of Hope made an impression.  

“We came back with the gold,” Philbin proudly stated.

“It was a breast cancer survivor division and there were 20 boats in our division, from all over, because it is international. We won that division.”

And they accomplished that feat with some incredible support behind the scenes.

“We’re always really big on having family around, so some family members also joined us.”

Dragon Boat Racing as an activity for breast cancer survivors has been around for years, but initially, some challenged the health benefits of such strenuous activity on the women or men recovering from breast cancer.  

“Back then there was thought that anyone with breast cancer should not exercise their arms because of the surgeries and all of the treatments,” stated Philbin.

“But it was soon realized that you need to move, and you need to get things limber.”

In the mid-'90s Canadian sports medicine specialist Dr. Don McKenzie studied the impact exercise has on breast cancer survivors.

“Dr. McKenzie totally promoted the whole dragon boat concept, because it really helps develop and stretch the muscles in the arms and the armpits. And it proved to be very, very beneficial for the breast cancer survivors” Philbin explained.

“So, in that aspect, it was very beneficial physically, but emotionally also. You had the support of 20-some cancer survivors who would come together and try to paddle a dragon boat of 20 seats in unison, basically having one heartbeat. Just that in itself speaks volumes.”

Philbin is relatively new to the team.

She was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2022 and joined the team that May.  

“This is the beauty of it all; I did not have the strength to paddle, but I wanted to paddle, and I wanted to be with these women. And so, they encouraged me to come and just sit in the boat and basically just rock with the motion, and that’s what I did for about a month” explained Philbin.

“Then I got strong enough to go compete in Vancouver in July 2022.”

Being a team member has meant the world to Philbin.  

“I was just retiring and so I was getting used to the retirement pace and I was thinking I wanted to do some volunteer work in the community, but I didn’t know what.”

And then suddenly she was dealing with a cancer diagnosis.

“I remember sitting on the couch one day and saying, ‘I know about the Warriors of Hope, but I don’t know who and what or where they are,’ so I just Googled and found them, and someone connected with me right away,” Philbin shared.

“What it gives me is the emotional support that I need, and also the physical activity that I need to keep going.”        

And she has no plans of stopping.

“I’m good. I still have my six-month appointments so I’m still being followed regularly. And right now, I’m cancer-free.”

The Warriors of Hope is comprised mostly of women, but there is a lone male team member who years ago, received his own breast cancer diagnosis.

“Depending on how your body works, it can happen to anyone. And if there’s any suspicion of a lump, they need to know it is not gender specific. Every now and again we still get ‘Oh really? Men can get breast cancer?’”

The season may be done, but the work is far from over.

Not wanting to miss a beat, the paddlers keep in shape over the winter by participating in a dry land program.

“We keep going. We’re committed to working out together. Our coach gives us exercises and we’ll do it together Tuesdays and Thursdays for an hour,” shared Philbin.

“We work with a fitness instructor who assists in pulling our program together.  We all come together and do our stretches and our cardio’s. And if we can’t go out, we do it by Zoom.”

The team is always open to new members with fresh ideas as they continue to move forward.

“We’re always looking. One thing in our strategic plan that we really want to start promoting is membership. It’s a membership for paddling yes, but not everyone wants to paddle, so it's also membership just to become part of the Warriors of Hope because there’s also a lot of community work that we do. We attend a lot of events, and so you can be an associate member and not have breast cancer, and still be part of our organization.”