Survivors arise with Pink Phoenix team

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 
photo Members of the Pink Phoenix dragon boat team practice on the Willamette River near RiverPlace Marina in Portland on Aug. 7. The team has about 85 members, each a breast cancer survivor.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo

In ancient mythology, the phoenix is a brilliant bird with a fire spirit, colorful feathers and a tail of gold and scarlet.

Near the end of its life, after living at least 500 years, the phoenix builds itself a nest of twigs. Then, the nest ignites. Both the nest and the bird burn fiercely.

But from the ashes, a new, young phoenix arises — reborn and destined to live as long as its old self.

The women of the Pink Phoenix dragon boat team consider the mythical bird’s triumphant return to life to be symbolic of their own rebirth. All 85 women who paddle with the team have at one time been given a breast cancer diagnosis.

Like the phoenix, they’ve risen from the ashes to embark on a new life, a renewed commitment to life after surviving cancer.

Hard to miss

The women of the Pink Phoenix dragon boat team are hard to miss.

They wear pink life jackets. They carry paddles emblazoned with pink-colored “Pink Phoenix” stickers. And many wear pink clothing — hats, shirts, tank tops and gloves in various hues of the color.

As the summer sun begins to set in Portland, two boats full of pink pull away from the dock at the RiverPlace Marina. After navigating through the moored boats in the marina, the paddlers propel the boat into the Willamette River.

“Take it away,” the caller in the front of the boat hollers.

At that, the 20 women on board drive the blades of their paddles into the water. After each stroke, they lean forward, their shoulders over their hips, and drive their paddles into the water again. Their bodies snap back as they use their cores to muscle the paddle through the river’s water.

The women spend the next hour practicing various aspects of dragon boat racing. They perform a series of power sets, paddling at full speed and strength for 30 seconds. They practice their race starts, making sure everyone is moving in unison to get the boat off to a strong start.

Then, as practice comes to an end, the boats make their way back to the marina.

The paddlers help each other out of the boats, unsteady as they sit in the water tethered to the dock. They congratulate each other on a practice well-done, patting each other on the back and giving out high-fives.

For many of the 85 women on the Pink Phoenix team — 15 of whom live in Clark County — that’s what the team is all about.

While many come to the team looking for a way to get active, they learn it’s more than just a physical workout. It’s a family. Teammates are shoulders to cry on, friends to lean on during tough times.

And when dealing with cancer, there are many tough times.

‘It was a lifesaver’

Sioux Kriss was diagnosed with breast cancer eight years ago. Two years after undergoing treatment, Kriss was deep in depression. She was shell-shocked, scared of her own shadow.

Then the Battle Ground woman, now 48, attended a Susan G. Komen conference that ended up changing her life. She saw a booth at the event for the Pink Phoenix team and decided to check it out.

“The girl (at the booth) said, ‘What do you do for yourself?’ ” she recalled.

Kriss has always been a mom, a wife, an executive. Her focus was never on herself.

“It hit so home,” she said.

She attended a practice with the team and saw a 94-year-old woman paddling. That was all the motivation she needed. Kriss joined the team and has been a member for five years.

And now, she’s no longer a shell of herself. Now, she can joke about having only one breast.

“It’s been huge,” Kriss said. “It was a lifesaver.”

The team has been significant in Paula Zellers’ life, as well.

Zellers was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer 14 years ago. The Vancouver woman, now 72 years old and cancer-free, was attending a support group meeting when she noticed two younger women eyeing her. After the meeting, they approached Zellers and told her about Pink Phoenix and asked her to join them at practice.

“The first day, I was just hooked,” she said.

That was 14 years ago. And in that time, Zellers said, paddling has changed her life.

“It’s empowering,” she said. “When you get breast cancer, you get stripped down to nothing. And then, you start getting built back up.”

And while they’re rebuilding themselves, they have dozens of women who are there to offer support and encouragement. Being around other women with similar experiences is invaluable, said Eva Cobb, who’s been with the team for six years.

When you’re going through treatment, most people around you can’t relate. They don’t understand, she said.

“But here, you can be completely open and bare your soul, cry and laugh,” said Cobb, 52.

And that, Cobb said, is part of the healing process. “A lot of people who join are kind of wounded — physically, emotionally, mentally,” she said.

But through their place on the Pink Phoenix team, they begin to take control back from the cancer, Cobb said.

And then, like the mythical phoenix, they rise up from the ashes and begin their lives again — renewed and committed to life after cancer.