How One Dragon Boat Helped 60 Breast Cancer Survivors Heal

The Dragon Boat Dream Team of Akron, Ohio is made up of local women of all ages -- and all have experienced breast cancer. Lynn Olszowy/espnW

AKRON, Ohio -- On a crisp October evening, members of the Dragon Dream Team gather for one of their final practices of the racing season. More than 40 women will fill two 42-foot -long dragon boats and charge through the waters for 90 minutes of vigorous paddling.

But before anyone steps into a boat, all of the women join hands and form a circle. Clad in pink life preservers, they pray for safety on the water and remind themselves to leave their cares on shore.

While the women in the circle vary in age and background, they share a common bond: They are all breast cancer survivors.

Dragon boat racing, a sport with ancient Chinese roots, has spread worldwide, with hundreds of races held each year, and the sport now has international and U.S. governing bodies. It's also become especially popular among breast cancer survivors, after Canadian physician Donald C. McKenzie challenged the notion that survivors should not participate in strenuous upper-body exercise.

He started a racing team, and published research in 1998 showing evidence that dragon boat racing was both physically and emotionally beneficial for his cancer patients. Today, there are 140 dragon boat teams in the world that are made up entirely of breast cancer survivors.

The Dragon Dream Team of Akron got its start in 2007, when an area plastic surgeon offered to buy one of his patients, Jessica Mader, a dragon boat if she could find enough women to take part in the sport. Today the Dream Teamers are 60 women strong and have competed in dozens of races, including last weekend's dragon boat festival in Sarasota, Florida, which featured 102 all-survivor teams from around the world. The Dragon Dream Team ended up 39th, which felt as good as victory.

"Overall, to finish in the top half, we were more than thrilled," said team member Susan Balmert, "especially [because we were] competing against more experienced teams. To be among 3,000 other survivors who have that same connection was really inspiring and a great way to reinforce what we do."

Below, six women from the Dream Team shared their stories with espnW.

Erica Whitmer

Age: 51; Diagnosed at 32

Personal power quote: "Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere." -- Albert Einstein

Before I joined this team in 2007, I hardly told anyone that I'd had breast cancer. I thought I was less of a person because I'd had a breast removed -- but then I met the Dragon Dream Team and realized I was more of a person, because I had beaten cancer.

This team has meant the world to me. I was looking for something to belong to, and I had tried other support groups, but they weren't for me. I was young, and I wanted to be active. And this team gave me back my confidence.

We tell new team members, You're going to come out here and exercise with us. We're going to show you by example how strong you can be. You're going to go out into your dragon boat, and we're all going to work together.

We're working hard and getting our exercise in, and it feels good when you're done. The water is so calming. There's nobody else to think about. No husbands, no kids, no cell phones.

It's just us, all together.

Sandie Fugitt

Age: 64; Diagnosed at 59

Personal power quote: Jeremiah 29:11. "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

I actually started on the Dragon Dream Team when I was still in treatment. The team was kind enough to let me drum because my oncologist didn't want me to paddle with a port in my arm.

In 2013 we came up with the idea of providing pashminas to breast cancer patients in the area. When you're sitting there getting your chemo, you're cold. So the pashminas are something to wrap around you -- as well as a hug from all of us. We give the message that they're not alone and that there's a group of survivors out there who are supporting them and wishing them well through their treatment, and also inviting them to come out and be part of us.

We've all been there. We've all had the same experience, although our cancers were all different, our treatments were probably different and the way we reacted to it was probably different. We're all breast cancer survivors.

The Dragon Dream Team is not just about supporting each other on a dragon boat. It's about having a full and active life after cancer. I was never athletic at all and I became an athlete at 60 years old.

Pat Donnelly

Age: 77; First diagnosed at age 48

Personal power quote: "I've been given a lot and I need to give a lot back."

I had breast cancer twice, in 1985 and 1989. When you have cancer, you've got to have a real positive attitude. You can't let it beat you. You have to keep in mind that you can do this. You just really fight hard. That's why being together in a group helps you stay positive.

People are really impressed when they see us. It's a big job to get that boat to move. And it's a great camaraderie that goes along with the paddling. We give each other all the support that we need. I think it gives everyone strength.

I love the physical part of dragon boat racing, and I love being an athlete at 77. I found I'm quite competitive.

I also walk, run, play golf, bicycle and go to the gym, so dragon boat racing is just one more way for me to stay strong.

The other women say they want to be like me when they grow up.

Susan Balmert

Age: 64; First diagnosed at 40

Personal power quote: "Take control back and move forward."

I was 40 years old when I was diagnosed. Then, I had just gotten over battle one and went right into battle two, when I was diagnosed again at age 42. But here I am 24 years later. I'm one of the lucky ones. Mammograms do make a difference.

Believe me, eight years ago when I stepped into a dragon boat, I never expected to be picking up a paddle and doing this as an athlete. I wasn't even all that interested in the water, but curiosity got me into the boat. Once I was in there with these 20 other women, it just kept me coming back.

There is something very empowering about being in that boat. I wear a pink headband, and it makes me feel like a warrior. I love racing. I love getting through that finish line and, believe me, you will find no more competitive athletes than a group of breast cancer survivors trying to get to a finish line.

I also love sharing what we do with other survivors who are in the midst of their treatment. I know not all women are able to get in a dragon boat and do what we do, but I think they can get a sense of moving forward and getting control back in their lives.

Rachelle Kaaikaula

Age: 38; Diagnosed at 36

Personal power quote: "Everyone gets back what they put out. If you have positive energy, you will always be happy."

When I got breast cancer it was shocking, because I was only 36. I'm the youngest on the team and it's nice at my age to be able to talk about breast cancer with other women. I chose to have a double mastectomy, which isn't something my friends can relate to, but these women can.

Breast cancer puts you in a whole other club. The team makes me feel like I'm normal. They support me and make me feel like I'm going to be OK after having breast cancer -- because they're OK.

There are so many categories of breast cancer and no one on the team has the same story. So you just get advice and words of wisdom on how to get through it.

I work out a lot, and I can tell you paddling is very physical. It works every part of your body -- core, arms, calves, glutes. My muscles are definitely getting stronger.

It's one thing to practice, but I love competing. When we race, we're pushing our limits and really going after it.

Angel Kouzelos

Age: 48; Still in treatment (diagnosed at age 47)

Personal power quote: "Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."

I found a lump in March of last year and by August I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 47 years old. My mom had breast cancer when I was growing up and she passed away when I was a senior in high school, so that just made me want to get rid of everything. I am going to do the full double mastectomy.

I hadn't known anybody who had breast cancer besides my mom, and I had so many questions and was so scared.

When I come here and talk to people who've actually gone through it, they know. Everybody here's pretty much gone through everything, so you can always get an answer.

I still have reconstruction coming up at the end of the year, but hopefully the worst is behind me. The women have told me to be positive and stay strong. Seeing these women and knowing their stories, I know it's going to be OK and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometimes I have to take a break from paddling because my body is still recovering. Cancer really takes a toll on the body. You don't realize how weak you are. But being out on the water is empowering. Everyone is just working together, and when you're out there paddling, you're feeling it.

It's a workout. It's a support group. It's a family. It's everything.