When Laura Thornquist was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, it was a shock because of how fit she was.
“I lived a healthy lifestyle,” said Thornquist, a 55-year-old Woodland resident who works in Vancouver. “I had no breast cancer in my family, so I was in disbelief, and then I got really angry about it. I went through a few months of being just angry. Then when I started feeling better, and getting back in the swing of things, I was just looking for an avenue to get back in there and reclaim my life again.”
That avenue came in the form of dragon boat racing. Thornquist started dragon boat racing in Portland. Now, about a decade later, she’s part of a Vancouver team called Catch-22 that has about 75 members made up of men and women and features close to a dozen people who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Thornquist explained dragon boating’s upper body movement helps prevent lymphedema — swelling that happens in arms or legs — and is commonly caused by damage or removal of lymph nodes as part of cancer treatment.
“Breast cancer survivors are drawn to this sport because it’s so good for your physical recovery from breast cancer. It gets your upper mobility back in your arms,” she said. “It’s also great for your competitive spirit. When you’re paddling, you can’t worry about anything. You can’t do anything. If you want to dragon boat paddle and do it well, you have to focus on that and be in the moment. You’re out in nature, enjoying the water, fresh air and good company.”
Paula Zellers, a 78-year-old Vancouver resident, had a different reaction to her breast cancer diagnosis, she said. Zellers has a history of breast cancer in her family, and wasn’t particularly surprised when she was diagnosed in 1998. But she had just moved to the area, and had only one friend nearby.
Zellers was told she should join a breast cancer support group after her diagnosis, so she did. Two support group members told her she should join their dragon boat team, but she didn’t know what dragon boating was and held off for a year before joining the team.
Zellers and Thornquist said Catch-22 has become a community for them, something discovered through their recovery from cancer.
“Every stroke counts. Everything you do matters because you’re part of a team,” Zellers said. “For a lot of us, we’ve not been part of a team quite like this.”
Each year, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer, including thousands of women in Washington. In honor of their fight — and as part of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month — The Columbian published this collection of stories about the women who have received breast cancer diagnoses, the science and technological advances for treating them and the community that supports them.