If you can bear the pun, these breast cancer survivors are all in the same boat. And they are paddling as if their lives depended on it.
Cheryl Brower, three years out from being diagnosed with cancer, has organized a group of women with breast cancer from Baltimore, Annapolis and Washington to take up the oars of a huge dragon boat. The women will be competing in Saturday's dragon boat races at Tide Point Waterfront Park near the Domino's Sugar plant.
"It is the best team sport ever invented, and I've been in team sports all my life," said Brower, an Ellicott City attorney and mother of four who has competed in dragon boat races internationally.
"I am so glad I found it, even if I had to get breast cancer to find it."
It is well known that exercise is critical to the well-being — emotional and physical — of breast cancer patients. But this ancient Chinese sport offers a bonus. It strengthens an area of a woman's body — her torso and under her arms — that may have been damaged by surgeries and other treatments.
"It is a full-body workout," said Sarah Doherty, a professor of sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art and an ocean kayaker of 20 years. She was diagnosed with cancer last August at the age of 44.
"And the dragon boat is the most amazing thing to address that area of my body. I have only been doing it for 31/2 weeks, and already the pain and swelling in my arms has been reduced."
There are 20 oars in a dragon boat, plus someone at the back who steers with a tiller and someone in front who beats a drum to time the strokes. The goal is to paddle very fast but as a unit. For races, a decorative and prized dragon's head is mounted on the boat.
The women agreed that the setting — usually dawn or dusk on the water — is lovely and therapeutic. The fact that they are working hard as a unit helps them forget their own troubles and feel part of something new and different.
"It could be the word 'dragon,'" said Barbara Van De Castle, a nurse educator at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. A dragon boat competitor with her husband, she will be calling the stroke at the head of the boat.
"But there is something to be said for the fact that you are in the boat paddling together, as one. The Race for the Cure is great, but everyone is out there on their own," she said.
Breast cancer survivors often suffer from lymphedema, a painful collection of fluid in the arms that results from a compromised lymphatic system.
"Think of a big sewer system cleaning out the body," said Maureen McBeth, program manager of the Center for Restorative Therapies Program at Mercy Medical Center. "And some of the major stations have been knocked out and there is less capacity."
Studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the New England Journal of Medicine have shown that exercise, especially exercise that engages large muscle groups, helps increase the rate at which the lymphatic system works.
"The stroke comes up from the legs through the core and into the arms," said McBeth. "It is not just the arms."
But sometimes, it might feel that way. Doherty, who has been at it less than a month, confesses to feeling beat after a practice, something a veteran like Brower understands.
"It has been described as killer Pilates in a boat," said Brower.
"A race typically takes three to 31/2 minutes," she said. Her team will be up against a powerful team of breast cancer survivors from Philadelphia. "I tell the women they can do anything for three minutes."
There is an effort to start dragon boat clubs for breast cancer survivors in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington — a boat costs about $10,000 — but for the moment, the women are competing under the flag of the Dragon Boat Club of Baltimore, which helped with the training.
"Dragon boat racing is amazing," said Doherty. "It is very much a team sport, creating a sense of empowerment and camaraderie and helping you regain a sense of strength and confidence in your body."
Women at all ages and levels of recovery are welcome — an 83-year-old survivor paddled recently. But sometimes, the women say, the best you can do is show up and sit in the boat.
It is a very different venue for a breast cancer support group, where the focus is not on the disease but on the sound of the drum that paces the strokes.
"It is really not about winning," Brower said. "It is about being in the boat."