Breast cancer survivors find fitness and friendship in dragon boat racing | Breast cancer

Caroline Mulcahy was a young packer when she first saw a dragon boat.

While in Hong Kong, she would spend most mornings sitting dockside in Stanley Harbour, mesmerized by teams of young men gracefully rowing 12m long boats through the water.

Despite the aesthetic appeal, Mulcahy never seriously considered taking up dragon boating on her own, doubting her strength and endurance.

However, on chilly winter mornings in Melbourne, Mulcahy, 55, can now be found rowing around the Docklands in a kite boat full of breast cancer survivors.

Crew prepare to embark at Melbourne's Docklands.
Crew prepare to embark at Melbourne’s Docklands. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“It’s a little ironic, but breast cancer got me into a sport I thought I’d never be able to participate in,” says Mulcahy.

Mulcahy and her crew are the latest team to join Dragons Abreast, an Australian breast cancer survivor organisation.

It’s part of an international movement involving hundreds of teams from 32 countries that dates back to 1996 when Canadian doctor Don McKenzie began trialling the sport as a treatment for breast cancer survivors.

Despite the advertised physical benefits, Mulcahy was hesitant when she first saw the brochure during her recovery in 2010.

Caroline Mulcahy and her Dragons Abreast team
Caroline Mulcahy (centre) says it took her five years after breast cancer treatment to feel ready to join a kite boat group. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“I turned around [my husband] “Chris and I said I’d love to do it, but I couldn’t face joining a team where I knew women… who had gone through this horrible experience and could be re-diagnosed and could die.” says Mulcahy.

Mulcahy endured several rounds of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, breast reconstruction surgery and numerous other surgeries and medical examinations before finally beating the disease. In all, it took her five years to feel ready to join the group.

“The upper body and core exercises from kitesurfing are fantastic,” says Mulcahy.

“When I wasn’t rowing [due to Covid] I discovered that my shoulders are getting very stiff, so I have to go to a massage or see a chiropractor. But when I row, I never have to do that.”

However, the camaraderie was of the greatest benefit.

Team-made paddles.
‘Use every part of your body in the boat.’ Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“Being surrounded by these amazing women who beat breast cancer, I knew if they could survive this, so could I.”

Joining the team for their first official row since the pandemic ended, there’s a buzz in the air.

After an hour of intense rowing through the Docklands in sync with the drum, there is little sign of fatigue – instead, everyone is laughing and smiling.

“It was fantastic. Even my husband said I’ve never seen you smile as much as you did coming back from paddling. It was so good to be on the water,” says colleague Romy Collier.

From the dock, Collier’s nine-year-old son cheered.

He was eight months old and was recently adopted by Collier when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.

“My biggest fear was that it would be taken away from me,” she says.

Breast cancer survivors enjoy the camaraderie of a group of dragon boats.
Breast cancer survivors enjoy the camaraderie of a group of dragon boats. Photo: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

“We waited nine years in the system. That was the hardest part, because I had waited so long to catch him and thought, ‘What’s going to happen now?’

Kite riding played an important role in helping Collier adjust to his “new normal.”

“A lot of people have told me now that you’re done with treatment that you can go back to your old life, but really, no, I can’t,” she says.

“I have all these scars. I can’t raise my arm above my head… I finished my treatment in 2015 and I still have issues that I still have to deal with.

“That’s why kiteboarding is so good. You use every part of your body in the boat, and it moves everything and it’s done in a supportive way, so if you can’t do something, there’s no pressure to push yourself.”

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