Local Women Magazine – June 2015

It’s 8.45am on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning and I’m standing beside Belfast`s River Lagan, to meet an amazing bunch of ladies who are united by two things: breast cancer and a passion for dragon boat racing.

Dragon boat racing has ancient Chinese origins, dating back more than two thousand years. The first participants were superstitious Chinese villagers who celebrated the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar; racing was held to fend off bad luck and to encourage the rains needed for crops (in spite of its fiery image, in China the dragon has traditionally been a symbol of water).

Nowadays, dragon boat racing involves teams of up to 20 paddlers in a 40-foot boat that has a dragon’s head mounted at the front. There’s a drummer and a helm to steer and participants paddle frantically to beat other teams down the course. The laughter is infectious as the girls finish their latest training session, then gather for a cuppa and a chat.

I’m greeted by Joanne Rock, a mum of three from Jordanstown and a founder member. An outsider would never know the personal battles that these women have faced, but each have been on a painful journey.

Joanne’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2007 and the very next month, Joanne herself found a small lump: ‘I was 37 at the time and I kept trying to think that it was nothing sinister.’ Joanne`s doctor referred her to the Breast Clinic at Belfast`s City Hospital.

‘That’s where I received the shocking news that I had breast cancer. It was a huge blow, as my children were only 12, 10 and 2, and my immediate thought was how long have I got, how many more milestones will I be able to celebrate with them?’

Joanne is a literacy teacher. She knew how important it was to keep life as normal as possible for her children, whilst inside, she was wracked with uncertainty.

‘My husband, David, a church minister, was given flexibility from work, so on the weeks when I needed more support he could be there for me and the children. I don’t know how we would have coped, had it not been for the support of my family, friends and work colleagues.’

Whilst the cancer was only in one breast, Joanne opted for a double mastectomy, and also underwent gruelling chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Then came an additional blow, when she was told that she also carried the BRCA 1 gene; ironically from her father’s side of the family, not her mother’s. This gene also meant an increased risk of ovarian cancer, so along with all her other medical problems, Joanne made the huge decision to have her ovaries removed.

‘BRCA 1 is the same gene that Angelina Jolie has, hence our striking resemblance,’ Joanne half joked, but added more seriously ‘It was a really tough time; but again the support we received from family, friends and the medical teams was immense.’

Joanne is a member of the BRCA Link NI group, which supports those who’ve discovered they carry the gene and it was at one of those meetings that she first learned about dragon boat racing.

‘A lady called Jean McCracken told me about the “Plurabelle Paddlers,” a team in Dublin who were looking for some women from Northern Ireland to join an All-Ireland team. I was intrigued, so I travelled to Dublin to find out more. I was hooked from the beginning; the team were so welcoming and everyone was literally in the same boat as they all had experienced breast cancer.

‘But the focus was on the paddling, working together and getting stronger and fitter. We know that exercise is good for us; exercising in a group is even better; exercising outdoors has a very positive effect and exercising on water is very therapeutic. So dragon boat racing ticks all those boxes!’

At this stage, I get to meet Jean McCracken herself, who was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, at the age of 48. Jean got involved in dragon boat racing because of the lymphedema she developed post-surgery. This is whenthe lymphatic system gets overwhelmed, resulting in swelling and discomfort in the arm, underarm, chest, and upper back. Jean explains:

‘For years, women were told not to exercise after surgery, to protect against getting lymphedema, but then a Canadian scientist totally turned that on its head.’

In 1996, a Dr Don McKenzie, who is an expert in sports medicine, challenged conventional thinking and developed a programme to determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors, choosing dragon boat racing because of the repetitive upper body work. He trained twenty-four breast cancer volunteers and at the end of six months none got lymphedema. Jean is an absolute fanatic about the benefits.

Last summer, Jean and Joanne joined Team Ireland at a major global event in Florida, to compete along with 3,100 breast cancer survivors from all over the world – men and women (men get breast cancer too!). Team Ireland did really well and came 29th out of 101 teams.

So it was Joanne who then decided that they needed to form their own team in Belfast, and that’s how the Lagan Dragons was born. She picks up the story:

‘I was concerned whether the women of Belfast would be interested in this. I needn’t have worried, because we were overwhelmed at the initial response and now we have over 40 women involved. Each Saturday morning we have a full boat ready to go. We now have three beautiful dragon boats owned by Bryson Lagansports who are encouraging us all the way and we are delighted that Cancer Focus Northern Ireland have brought us under their wing and are offering this now as an imaginative and unique support service to those with a breast cancer diagnosis.’

Karen Gibson from Dromore in County Down has recently signed up. A dentist and mum of two daughters, Karen found a lump in 2011, at the age of 35. She underwent a mastectomy, chemo and radiation therapy when her daughters were only 5 and 2.

‘It was the biggest shock you can imagine, because I had no family history at all. I was diagnosed four days before Christmas and had my surgery the day after Boxing Day. I was devastated, terrified and very pessimistic about the future. I just wanted to see my kids grow up, that’s all. The worst part was the chemo and losing my hair, my eyebrows and my eyelashes, but I fought on, and thankfully my last MRI showed no evidence of disease. I had my life back. I was so grateful. Then I saw a post on Facebook about the dragon boat racing and came along for a look. Someone said, “What size life jacket do you take?” and that was it. I started in February and I just love it. I mean, what else would get you up at 7.15 on a Saturday morning? It has helped me so much!’

35 year-old Naomi King, who is a fundraising officer in Queen’s University, agrees.

‘I always thought breast cancer might be coming at me at some stage in my life, but I never thought it would be at age 34. We have family history of it on both my mum’s and dad’s side. But still, it was an absolute shock to be told you have it and all that follows those words. I tried to keep as positive and as outwardly normal to friends and family throughout and just get to the end of it, but definitely that was hard to do.’

‘On a review appointment I was chatting with the same doctor who had given me my diagnosis, about getting fit again, and she suggested that that I go along to the information evening for this new project. I can’t swim and didn’t have a clue what a dragon boat was, but I went along anyway. After my first session on the water, I had caught the bug.’<

‘The exercise is just one part of it. Meeting all the other girls is equally important. It sort of acts like a very positive support group, and the tea and scones when we get off the boat are a big incentive! I recommend anyone who has had breast cancer to come along, we are a friendly bunch and you just go at your own pace, it is a great thing to do!

Naomi is living life for the moment. ‘I have a very lovely fiancé called Barry who I met in The Botanic Inn about six years ago. He was very kind throughout and looked after me very well. We got to try the “sickness and in health” part a lot earlier than either of us imagined! Barry surprised me with a proposal at Mount Stewart about a month after my chemo had finished and we’re getting married in the Slieve Donard at the end of July!’

One of Belfast`s senior breast cancer surgeons is also a regular Lagan Dragons member. Dr Gwyneth Hinds thoroughly recommends it to her patients. Cancer Focus NI offers Lagan Dragons as a new support service, but urgently needs funds.

An old Chinese proverb states, ‘The dragon teaches you that if you want to climb high you have to do it against the wind.’

Like the dragon, these women won’t be defeated. It is a credit to Joanne Rock that this is happening at all. As I thank Joanne for a great morning, she leaves me with a final thought:

‘It’s so good to see the women out in the boat on the Lagan and working hard, working together and laughing. Having had cancer has certainly helped me focus more on the important things in life. Here, I can see the bonds of friendship growing and the care and support the women offer each other after cancer is so special. I’m very proud. Paddling keeps me centred in the now – not yesterday, not tomorrow, just the push of the water against the paddle. Now. That’s all we can do.