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News / Health / Breast Cancer

Dragons on the water: Breast cancer survivors find health, strength, connection paddling in New Zealand

By Susan Parrish, for The Columbian
Published: October 7, 2023, 5:00am
12 Photos
Teams Mighty Women Power and Catch 22 race at a dragon boat competition Aug. 4 in Ridgefield.
Teams Mighty Women Power and Catch 22 race at a dragon boat competition Aug. 4 in Ridgefield. (Contributed by Nicole Rummel) Photo Gallery

Nicole Rummel paddled in her first-ever dragon boat race in New Zealand. Not only had it been a long trip, but she had taken an even longer journey.

A breast cancer survivor, she had joined Vancouver’s Catch-22 dragon boat team the previous year, but because of limitations from her reconstructive surgery, she couldn’t race until the following year in New Zealand.

Thirteen breast cancer survivors from Catch-22 gathered with 2,500 fellow survivors and paddlers from 30 countries April 10-16 for the International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Participatory Festival on Lake Karapiro in New Zealand.

Every four years, thousands of survivors from around the world gather to participate in an international festival organized by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission. Worldwide there are more than 260 IBCPC member dragon boat teams and about 10,000 paddlers representing 33 countries and six continents. Unlike competitive races, these festivals are participatory. Everyone gets a medal.

Dragon Boating

International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Participatory Festivals

  • 2026: France (city TBA)
  • 2023: Lake Karapiro, New Zealand
  • 2018: Florence, Italy
  • 2014: Sarasota, Fla.

Learn more: International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission www.ibcpc.com

Catch-22

This dragon boating team paddles on Vancouver Lake and includes a breast cancer survivors’ team.

Email: catch22dragonboating@gmail.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/VancouverLakeDragonBoating

Meetup: www.meetup.com/vlacdb

For New Zealand, the team raised money to provide race shirts, but the paddlers paid their other expenses: $350 registration, about $1,400 in airfare plus hotels, meals and sightseeing excursions.

Breast cancer survivors have endured one of the most challenging ordeals of their lives. Months of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy have ravaged their bodies, sapped their energy and deflated their confidence. Despite the challenges, survivors have excelled in the sport of dragon boating.

When a survivor steps into a dragon boat for the first time and picks up a paddle, something like magic happens. Paddling in unison with 19 teammates, a woman who has felt weak now feels powerful. Even more empowering is the opportunity to paddle in an international festival where every participant is a survivor.

New Zealand bound

The previous festival had been before the pandemic, in 2018 in Florence, Italy. Paula Zellers, Catch-22’s team manager, paddled with her team there. They joined more than 4,000 people — 121 dragon boat teams representing 18 countries who paddled in the Arno River.

Zellers, 82, was diagnosed with breast cancer 25 years ago. She recently completed her 24th dragon boat season.

Catch-22 didn’t have enough paddlers committed to New Zealand to fill a boat, so they teamed up with Pink Phoenix, a survivor team from Portland, to create a new, temporary team, Pacific Northwest Pink Lemonade. The name is a nod the team’s sponsor, Pink Lemonade Project, a Vancouver nonprofit that supports breast cancer patients. Many paddlers traveled with family and friends.

Catch-22 paddlers said finding the sport of dragon boating and traveling with their team to New Zealand have been transformative experiences.

Mary Ellingson

When Mary Ellingson was diagnosed with lobular breast cancer at 63, she took a year’s leave of absence from work for chemotherapy, radiation and nine surgeries. During her treatment, she read an invitation in The Columbian for breast cancer survivors to try dragon boating on Vancouver Lake. Immediately, Ellingson knew she wanted to do it, but after a recent surgery, she couldn’t lift her arms over her head. Almost two years later, she was ready.

“When I climbed into the boat, I thought: ‘This is it! This is what I need,’ ” Ellingson said.

She paddled in her first races in summer 2022. The following spring, she joined her teammates in New Zealand.

Britten Witherspoon

The day before her 42nd birthday, Britten Witherspoon was diagnosed with breast cancer. She started months of chemotherapy followed by a bilateral mastectomy. Before her diagnosis, she was fit from regular strength training. Cancer treatment ended her fitness activity. Her energy was so low that she could barely walk around the block.

Chemo had caused osteoporosis, resulting in pain in her joints and bones. Surgery had robbed her upper body of strength and mobility. Medications caused her to gain weight. Slowly, she started walking longer distances, but her body had changed.

Then, through the Vancouver nonprofit Pink Lemonade Project, she heard about dragon boating.

“I was at such a low point physically and emotionally that I decided to give it a try,” Witherspoon said. “My first time on the boat, I fell in love with the sport.

“Dragon boating has become one of my absolute favorite things. Rather than missing what my body used to be able to do, I now focus on what I can do with the body I have now. The opportunity to paddle with Catch-22 has changed my life for the better.”

Nicole Rummel

Nicole Rummel was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer at 41. Her treatment regimen included chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, radiation and a hormone blocker. The drugs caused side effects: feeling loopy, hot flashes, weight gain, joint pain and exhaustion.

“It’s been a struggle,” Rummel admitted. “I think it was hard on my family to see someone who had been very athletic not even be able to walk up the stairs. The survivorship of cancer is almost as hard as the treatment.”

Connect with support groups

Pink Lemonade Zest: Targeted at young women with breast cancer. Meets via Zoom 6-8 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. Find information at www.pinklemonadeproject.org/others-who-can-help

Pink Lemonade Limoncello: For all breast cancer patients. Meets via Zoom 6-8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Find information at www.pinklemonadeproject.org/others-who-can-help

Legacy Health Breast Cancer Support Group: For all breast cancer patients. Meets via Zoom 5:30−7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month. Contact Sara Butler at 503-413-7932 or Margaret Hartsook at 503-413-8404.

Compass Oncology Women’s Cancer Support Group: For all women cancer survivors. Meets via Zoom from 5-6:30 p.m. on the second Monday of each month. Contact Virginia Hill at 503-528-5212 or virginia.hill@compassoncology.com.

Grupo de Apoyo - Cáncer de Mama: For Spanish-speaking breast cancer patients. Meets via Zoom 6-7 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. Contact Erika Ramirez at 971-331-1762 or ERamirez@nwfs.org.

Oregon Cancer Foundation Breast Cancer Support Group: All are welcome. Meets via Zoom 6-7:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month. Call 541-632-3654 or email info@oregoncancerfoundation.org.

—Chrissy Booker

Like Witherspoon, Rummel also heard about dragon boating from Pink Lemonade Project. When her body was strong enough, she climbed aboard.

“Water is my peaceful place,” Rummel said. “Paddling a dragon boat gave me my power back that cancer took from me.”

Because Rummel’s family had endured two hard years during her illness, they joined her in New Zealand to enjoy a family vacation. They toured the Hobbiton movie set built for the “Lord of the Rings” films, paddled kayaks into caves to see glow worms and went sledding down sand dunes.

“We spent time in the car just laughing hysterically. It’s something we’ve been missing,” Rummel said. “New Zealand was the icing on the cake. On the festival’s opening day, we walked together in the Parade of Nations. My kids marched with our team and carried our banner. Our trip to New Zealand might have broken the bank a little, but it was worth it.

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“The race was very impactful — especially to have New Zealand be my first race,” she said. “The second day, every paddler wore pink. It was a sea of pink! I was grateful for still being here.”

Flower ceremony

The festival ended with a flower ceremony, a tradition to remember those who have died of breast cancer. Almost 5,000 people — survivors and their families — waved long-stemmed pink carnations in the air as they listened to a song written especially for survivors. Then everyone tossed their flowers into the lake.

“Arms went around each other, and tears flowed as we all shared in this special moment,” Zellers said.

The next IBCP festival will be in France in 2026. Witherspoon, Ellingson, Zellers and Rummel all plan to be there.

Zellers said survivors are welcome to join Catch-22 on the water.

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