Breast cancer survivors find support and camaraderie through competition

A group of just under two dozen women, who have all survived breast cancer, are heading overseas next month to compete in a dragon boat race that signifies their continuing strength from their hard-won victories.

The Sistership Dragon Boat Association was born from an idea from sports medicine physician Don McKenzie who said that the strenuous activity of paddling did not exacerbate cancer cases in men and women and instead was an incredible rehabilitation therapy.

Cyndie McOuat, president of the group, says that the exercise is one thing, but the support she has gotten from her fellow members throughout her journey has been something else.

“When I was first diagnosed 10 years ago, I was in the depths of despair and I really thought I was going to die. I went through about 10 months of treatment, chemotherapy and radiation. I was volunteering at the Run for the Cure and I came across the Sistership booth and I had never heard of it nor was I ever an athlete in my life.

“I signed up just because I wanted to talk to the people just about my experience and their experience and just that they’re still alive.”

She says that her participation brought her out of that depression.

Rose Wightman, who was diagnosed in 2012, says that she joined because she says it was a way to get her strength back after her battle with breast cancer but learned it was much more than that.

“I thought about it as a way to get strong, get control back over what my body was doing to me and what I could do back to my body to make it fit and well again, but I had no idea about the emotional support and camaraderie that would go along with being in a sport like this. It’s just been incredible.”

The team has been preparing for months for their next journey, a much more positive one this time.

They are headed to Florence, Italy to compete against other dragon boat teams filled with breast cancer survivors from all over the world.

McOuat says it gives them an opportunity to share stories with other survivors they’ve never met.

“This year, it’s the first time in Florence that there’s going to be representatives from all continents of the world. We are going to be able to speak to different survivors and get tips and support from them in a fun happy environment that shows there is life after breast cancer.”

She adds that it’s also an opportunity to lend them their own support, especially considering that breast cancer awareness isn’t as strong in other countries as it is in Canada.

“One of the problems with breast cancer around the world is the stigma that it’s attached to in some countries. This helps, bringing everybody together, to show that there is nothing to be ashamed of and it’s all about getting well and living with breast cancer and surviving and having a wonderful life.”

The team will compete in Italy on July 6.

For more information about Sistership, you can visit the .

(With files from Brad MacLeod)