A pink dragon boat named Victorious skimmed along Vancouver Lake on a clear August morning. With each paddle stroke, 20 women propelled the boat forward. Although they represented a range of ages and backgrounds, they shared a common story. All were breast cancer survivors — and their cancer had introduced them to dragon boating.
The women belong to the Vancouver Lake Crew dragon boat team Catch-22, a men’s and women’s team that paddles on Vancouver Lake. But when they paddle in the pink PeaceHealth Kearney Breast Center boat, they are Catch-22’s breast cancer survivors’ team.
Each woman’s journey is different. Carla Lange paddled on the boat’s front bench, setting the team’s pace. She was 40 when she was diagnosed. When her doctor commented that she was young, Lange replied: “It’s OK. I’m young enough to fight it.”
When she and her husband, Chris Lange, told their kids, then 13 and 15, about her cancer, Lange said: “This isn’t going to hold me down.”
She continued showing up for their sporting and school events. She was still president of the swim club and worked full time. Chris stepped in more at home.
After her diagnosis, she said, “people didn’t have the bravery to say, ‘I’ll be with you no matter what.’ I decided to be brave and take over the confidence in the room. I don’t want pity. Don’t give me that bad mojo.”
After her lumpectomy and lymphectomy, Lange participated in a clinical trial, which meant 17 rounds of chemotherapy over a year, followed by radiation treatments daily for eight weeks. Despite having an aching body and feeling that she had the flu that entire year, she didn’t miss a day of work at PeaceHealth, where she is a quality analyst.
Lange wasn’t one of those cancer patients who post their treatment photos on social media, but she heeded the advice of her supervisor, a 20-year survivor. She suggested Lange document her treatment by taking photos of losing her hair, for instance, but keep them private.
“I put the photos in a book and put it on a shelf,” Lange said. “Cancer isn’t who I am. It’s something I went through for a year. But I’m not wearing breast cancer as a badge for the rest of my life.”
She continued swimming, but after her surgeries, she lost muscle tissue and couldn’t play volleyball anymore. When she heard that PeaceHealth was looking for new dragon boat paddlers, including breast cancer survivors, she decided to try. Chris accompanied her to Vancouver Lake for moral support, but he was handed a paddle too. He’s been paddling with her on Catch-22 ever since.
Dragon boating on Vancouver Lake: www.facebook.com/VancouverLakeDragonBoating
During those first months of paddling, sometimes she hurt so much tears ran down her face. She told herself: “I’m doing this for exercise and friendship. I’m here to prove I can do this hard thing.”
At her first competition, Catch-22 won its first, second and fourth races. At the end of the day, a gold medal hung around her neck.
“It was a rush to feel that again,” she said. “Dragon boating is my survivor group.”
Stronger than before
In contrast to Lange’s one year paddling a dragon boat, Paula Zellers, 75, has been a dragon boat paddler for 17 years.
When Zellers was diagnosed with breast cancer 18 years ago, she chose a more radical surgery, a mastectomy rather than a lumpectomy, because her mother had recently died of breast cancer.
“Some people who are diagnosed with breast cancer think, ‘This is the end.’ But it wasn’t the end for me. I had so much I wanted to do,” Zellers said.
Before her diagnosis, she’d been a runner, skier, cyclist and kayaker. At a breast cancer support group, two women invited her to try dragon boating.
“I went one time and was hooked,” she said. “Dragon boating is a team effort. It’s great exercise and tremendous support.”
Dragon boat racing has taken Zellers throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and to New Zealand and Australia. She even earned a gold medal in the world championships.
“Having breast cancer strips you down to nothing,” she said. “Then you build back up, and in many instances, you become stronger than you were before.”