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Opinion: Bill Walton, Taming the Dragon

We would love to slay the dragon of cancer.

The Warriors of Hope are back on the water on Trout Lake on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Covid cancelled Dragon Boat festivals across the country – and around the world – but dragon boat paddlers are back on the water now, itching for competition. The Warriors of Hope, North Bay and Area Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat Racing Team are on the water training for the (International) Concord Pacific Dragon Boat Festival in Vancouver, BC. June 25 and 26 will see the team racing at False Creek.

If you are unfamiliar with the dragon boat, it is a large ‘canoe’ that seats 20 paddlers with a drummer at the front and a steersperson at the stern. The boat is 12.4 metres long (excluding the decorative head and tail) and weighs about 250 kg. Our training boat, “Jane” is of a sturdier construction and weighs closer to 350 kg. Typical races are 500 metres and although younger elite teams can cover that distance in just under 2:00 minutes, most Breast Cancer Survivor teams can cross the finish line in well under 3:00 minutes. The Warriors’ target time is 2 minutes and 30 seconds in practice.

With our gear, the dragon boat will weigh over 4,100 pounds or about 1,860 kg. The goal is to get that heavy boat of people moving as quickly as possible. We practice a lot of ‘starts’.  (Thanks to the people along Anita Ave who cheer us on). It will take us about 15 seconds to get to a race speed/stroke rate of about 67 strokes per minute. That is very impressive for a team of breast cancer survivors.

In 1996, Dr. Don McKenzie, a British Columbia Professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and exercise physiologist, challenged the prevailing medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema, a debilitating and chronic side effect of treatment.

Not only have we all undergone treatment for breast cancer, but those of us who have been under the surgeon’s scalpel has had work done near those muscles needed to paddle a dragon boat. Some survivors have had radiation, and the effects of that treatment can be lasting. Then we have all been on drugs. Not sport performance-enhancing steroids, but a drug of choice, usually Tamoxifen, which can really knock you for a loop. Some members have had more extensive treatments of course, but here we are in the dragon boat.

A number of our team members are young – too young for cancer we always say; some have been survivors for 20 years. Many of us are grandparents but because of privacy laws and my own safety, I cannot tell you the average age of the team. Suffice it to say that Dorothy and I are both 83.  We come from all walks and careers of life. We use English commands in the boat but have bilingual and even trilingual people in Jane. The “ladies” have a chant - ‘oogy, oogy, oogy’ that I, the lone man, have no idea of its meaning, and it is probably best that I do not know.

The three words of the Warrior motto are Heart, Determination, and Strength and we see that every Tuesday and Thursday evening but my guess is that the partners and family of the Warriors see that every day because we live with cancer every day.

Many of the Warriors use meditation to help them along the path to recovery. They focus on some image, and oddly enough, many of the survivors focused on the image of a dragon. The idea was to slay the dragon that represented cancer. (My wife used a shark as her image, whereas I had a politician in my mind). I suspect that the founders of the team back in 1999 had a dragon in their minds when they adopted our now familiar dragon logo.

I am certain that all of us would like to find a cure for cancer, not only breast cancer but cancer in its many forms. We would love to slay the dragon of cancer. But in the meantime, we breast cancer survivors want to show that there can be an active life after breast cancer – even in something as demanding as dragon boat racing.

We are taming the dragon.

And just for the hell of it, we are going to kick a little dragon butt in Vancouver. Go Warriors!

Bill Walton

About the Author: Bill Walton

Retired from City of North Bay in 2000. Writer, poet, columnist
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