Breast cancer survivors forge bond through dragon boat racing

Originally published in the Washington Post Local Living section. An alternate version was posted on

The women on GoPink!DC stretch before getting in the boat. Before every race, they adorn the boat with a dragon head and tail, a tradition that originated in China. Photo by Emily Siner

The first time Gail Messier saw a dragon, she was lying on a thin, hard table in a hospital room. A machine hovered over her chest. It was huge and smooth and radiated over her body with an invisible heat that made her raw.

Chemotherapy, surgery and now radiation — her treatment hurt, but it was saving her life. It was like a dragon, she imagined. And she was a warrior, slaying her breast cancer with it.

“Who wants to willingly be poisoned, slashed and burned? No one in their right mind,” she said. “I think it was a way to ally myself with my treatment.”

During her radiation treatment this year, the 50-year-old massage therapist from Takoma Park discovered that dragons do exist, at least in an athletic sense. Messier joined GoPink!DC, a team of breast cancer survivors and their supporters who paddle on the Anacostia River in what is called a dragon boat. She and her teammates will compete in a 500-meter race at the National Harbor Dragon Boat Regatta on Saturday. The regatta is hosting 23 teams, mostly from the Washington area, including one other breast cancer team from Baltimore.

“It’s just a fabulous group of women,” said Mary Wilson, 58, a lawyer from Mount Pleasant. Wilson is one of a handful of women on the GoPink!DC team who has never had breast cancer, but she started paddling to support a friend who had the disease. “They’re remarkable, having all overcome this adversity and suffering, these joyful, energetic, athletic women.”

Dragon boating began in China more than 2,000 years ago. According to legend, an exiled Chinese statesman drowned himself in political protest, and boats scouted the water with drums and rice dumplings to distract the water dragons from eating his body. Over time, reenactments of the legend turned into an international competitive sport.

Head coach David Winter steers the dragon boat at a recent Saturday morning practice. Photo by Emily Siner

The modern dragon boat looks like an elongated canoe that seats 20 paddlers, in 10 rows of two, plus a steersperson and a drummer. The boat is adorned with a dragon head and tail before races. At capacity, it weighs about 4,000 pounds.

The sport’s celebration of survivorship is a much more recent tradition, starting about 15 years ago in Canada. At the time, doctors generally thought that upper-body exercise aggravated the lymphatic system, which was particularly fragile after radiation or removal of lymph nodes, and could cause a condition called lymphedema, an incurable swelling in the arms. GoPink!DC founding member Annette Rothermel, 56, of Bethesda said that when she received her diagnosis in 1997, she was told not to lift anything heavier than 5 pounds.

But about the same time as Rothermel’s diagnosis, a doctor in Canada began researching the effects of repetitive-motion exercises on lymphedema, using dragon boating as the model. He found that breast cancer survivors on the boat didn’t have a higher risk of lymphedema. In fact, he found, exercise might help prevent it.

Since then, dozens of breast cancer dragon boat teams have sprung up across the United States and Canada. Head coach and avid dragon boater David Winter, 52, had seen breast cancer teams compete at regional meets and wanted to bring that to Washington. He founded GoPink!DC in 2006. He and Rothermel are co-workers at the National Institutes of Health.

“For the breast cancer survivors, it can actually turn their lives around in a very significant way,” he said. “It’s about taking control of your body and your health.”

When the women are on the boat, Messier said, they leave cancer on the dock. Twice a week on the Anacostia River, they are more than survivors. They are athletes.

And they are successful. The team is ranked first in its regional breast cancer division, Winter said.

Leslie Caplan yells out drills and pointers to the team at a recent Monday evening practice. Photo by Emily Siner

During a recent Monday-night practice at the Anacostia Community Boathouse, Leslie Caplan, 57, of Chevy Chase sat at the head of the boat and called out drills.

“Push with your legs,” she yelled over the sound of paddles in water. She let out a whoop as the boat surged. “Excellent, feel that, ladies!”

Caplan would sometimes set the pace of the boat by shouting as the paddles hit the water with each stroke, something the drummer does during races. The boat moves fastest when paddlers are in sync — same form, same timing. Brute strength is important, but it plays a secondary role.

The workout still pushes them, Karen Woods, 53, said. A nonprofit fundraiser from Lorton, Woods joined the team a year after her breast cancer was diagnosed in 2009. She wanted to regain the athleticism that had faded during her treatment.

With GoPink!DC, she found not only a workout but also a support system — women who have been through the same challenges, physically and emotionally.

“If you’re not on the cutting edge physically, you’re still accepted,” she said. “This is a world where people understand you.”

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