Being in the Same Boat: Breast Cancer Survivors Are Racing Teammates

 

Marla Khan-Schwartz (photo by Sarah Whiting)

At one time, breast cancer survivors, especially those who had lymph nodes removed, were advised not to use their upper body for anything strenuous. In 1996, however, a Canadian doctor tested that concept and found that breast cancer survivors who did strength training for the repetitive motion of dragon boating had a better quality of life. Research reveals the value of exercise for cancer survivors.

We talked to Marla Khan-Schwartz about her experience as a dragon boat team member.

 

Tell us about the journey that led you to dragon boats.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be part of a competitive sports team. My accomplishments in high school were academic — orchestra and Science Olympiad.

I’ve been a full-time social worker for almost 20 years. I love it. I specialize mostly with adult mental health clients who live in nursing facilities, and streamlining folks from institutions into safer places with community-based services. I’ve also been trained at the FEMA facility in Alabama for emergency response tasks.

I’m a breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed when I was 35. Cancer can sometimes leave you with a hot mess of anxiety. Am I going to get sick again? It’s also really hard, after you are technically in remission and after the fast-paced treatment regimen, to be left with all of your emotions. It’s almost like you lost a second full-time job. What do you do with those emotions when you are no longer too busy for them?

In college, I started running a little. About three days after chemo stopped, when I started to feel better, I ran, bald, around the Lake Nokomis area. It helped curb nausea and symptoms from the chemo. I’m moving into my twelfth year of remission this year.

In October 2022, I was at a routine oncology appointment. They had a library of resources. I saw the brochure for Dragon Divas, with a picture of a boat and a big cancer ribbon on the front. I learned about a local team of breast cancer survivors. The team doesn’t care how old you are or what your prior sports experience has been.

It also doesn’t matter what stage of cancer you are in. There are active paddlers who have metastatic breast cancer, people who have survived for decades, and people who completed treatment last year. Our age range, I believe, is currently from [survivors in their] 30s to [a woman who is] 89.

 

How has this been challenging, and an act of healing?

I felt welcomed immediately when I joined the team. The biggest challenge was learning the timing, so you don’t hit the paddle in front or behind. I also needed to learn the different calls: drag your paddles, draw, sit ready, paddles up, go. The first six paddles of the race are important. They can make or break how quickly the boat can lift and increase speed. We paddle to the beat of the drum during a race.

I was told to forget anything I might know about canoeing, rowing, and kayaking, because this is a totally different way of moving through the water.

Anyone who has breast cancer has a completely different story from the next person. However, we have this commonality that brings us all together. During our practices, we have a chance to talk about anything we want to say. Often people will talk about good things that are happening in their life. We talk about people we’ve lost over time. There’s also something about being on the water that’s healing, especially because we’ve all gone through cancer.

At practice on Saturday mornings, it is very quiet. When we get on the water and start paddling, the only thing we hear is the moving water. Sometimes our coach will have us close our eyes to build confidence in our paddling technique. It is empowering to listen to how we all work together as a team by listening to how the water is moving beneath us.

On Monday night practices, we often get beautiful sunsets. It’s nice to see another day go by. When [you go] through breast cancer treatment, and you are stuck in that pattern of ambiguity for so long, you don’t know if there is going to be another day. Looking at that sunset, I feel lucky that I’m able to see it.

I’ve learned that it’s not about winning, but about showing up, supporting my teammates, and learning from them. It also has helped show my family that I can survive after cancer. For my kids to be able to see me race means everything.

During a race day, there is usually a flower ceremony honoring breast cancer survivors. We throw petals or flowers into the water to honor survivors and those we have lost. We’re planning to compete in France in 2026, for the International Breast Cancer Festival. There will be thousands of other women who have gone through breast cancer treatment.

As a woman of color, participating in this sport resonates with me, not just from the lens of inclusivity, but because of how the health benefits of dragon boat paddling can potentially help reduce health disparities. I would love to see other women of color and breast cancer survivors join a team. MWP

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