Breast Cancer Survivors Team Up to Keep Their Spirits Afloat

Updated June 2010

In synch with the beat of a drummer in the prow, 20 women bear down on their paddles, propelling their sleek, 44-foot-long boat across the water, a fanciful dragon’s head pointing the way to the finish line.

They’re among more than 125 members of Western New York’s Hope Chest Dragon Boat team—women ranging in age from 35 to 83, who count among their number two nuns, a correctional officer, a massage therapist, realtors, retirees, nurses, teachers and mothers. All of them are strong, but not all of them started out that way. They’ve built their collective muscle and spirit by training and racing together, and they’ve taken on some tough competitors in regattas across the U.S. and Canada.

But for these women, all breast cancer survivors, the joy is not so much in the prospect of winning as in the race itself. “It’s so exciting!” says team member Barbara Roy. “I feel so good—better than I have in years and years.” That well-being comes from “getting out into the air, racing against other athletes who don’t have cancer. This has given me energy and purpose. When I’m out there, I don’t have to think about cancer.”

That’s just what professional trainer Laurie Butler was aiming for seven years ago when she took out an ad in The Buffalo News asking interested breast cancer survivors to contact her about forming a dragon boat team—the second such team in the U.S. organized specifically for breast cancer survivors. “The phone was ringing the next day,” Butler recalls, “and I thought, Hot diggity—here we go!”

Patricia Newton was the second woman to call. She had no rowing experience, but “I used to live on Buffalo’s West Side, near the West Side Rowing Club,” she says, “and I would see people rowing out there in the early morning, and it looked like the most peaceful, tranquil experience.”

“Most of us had never been on a sports team,” adds Terry Skura, a Roswell Park volunteer and part-time buyer in the hospital gift shop. “We’re not die-hard athletes. It’s more of a morale boost and a way to educate women that there is life after cancer.

“We laugh and cry together; we’re there for support, but we’re also improving ourselves and our self-esteem when we’re out on the water. We’re trying to be proactive, doing something to help our health.”

Initially, Newton’s physician expressed concern that paddling might trigger lymphedema, a condition that affects some breast cancer patients when surgical removal of lymph nodes leads to swelling of the arm. But recent research shows that exercise, including the repetitive motion of paddling, does not increase the risk of lymphedema and, in fact, that it might actually reduce the risk.

To ensure safe training, at the very beginning Laurie Butler contacted Kathleen Fassl, formerly of Roswell Park. Together with physical therapist Linda Miller, Fassl advised Butler on the best way for the women to condition for racing, emphasizing the need to start slowly. Butler is “very conscious about being careful,” notes Skura.

Butler, who volunteers her time as the team’s trainer and coach, points out that dragon-boating provides a powerful emotional boost for women who “begin to feel that they have to drop their activities” after a diagnosis of breast cancer—precisely when they’re most in need of new vistas, inspiration and hope. “There has to be hope,” she says—and indeed, that’s why “Nina’s Hope” is emblazoned on one end of the dragon boat in tribute to Butler’s friend, Nina Sacco. Though Sacco did not survive her own battle with breast cancer, it was she who encouraged Butler to launch a new career as a personal trainer, a venture that led eventually to the creation of the Hope Chest Dragon Boat team. Butler’s abiding commitment to the team is Sacco’s legacy.

Team member Marcie Kallen, a 24-year survivor who’s now in her 70s, says her involvement with the team makes her feel “so lucky that I’m still doing things I loved doing in my early 20s—something in my life that’s very meaningful.”

Asks Butler, “What greater gift is there?”

To learn more about the Hope Chest Dragon Boat Team, visit http://hopechestbuffalo.com/.

Coverage of this story can also be found in Roswellness magazine.