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Vol. LVIII, No. 2
January 27, 2006

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Breast Cancer Survivors Take Control in Dragon Boats

On the front page...

Imagine a warm day on the banks of the Anacostia River. Several brightly colored boats race past, each 20-woman crew dipping the oars in perfect synchronization. It may not be until after the race, when these women laugh and shout and congratulate each other, that you notice the many pink ribbons decorating team shirts and some of the boats.


Parents and kids enjoy a "Family Learn to Paddle Day" on the Anacostia River.  
This is the annual Washington, D.C., Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat Festival, and it hasn't actually happened yet. But if NIH employees Dr. David Winter and Jane Daye have their way, it will.

Daye is a senior policy analyst and special assistant to the director at the NCI Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities. Winter is a program officer in NIAID's Division of Allergy, Immunology and Transplantation. Both are members of the National Capital Area Women's Paddling Association (NCAWPA), a coed paddling organization that hopes to establish a breast cancer survivor (BCS) dragon boat team and, eventually, bring a BCS Dragon Boat Festival to the D.C. area.

NCAWPA's boathouse is in Anacostia, "right in the community we want most to reach," says Winter. "The boathouse is completely volunteer-run; there are no salaries for any of the coaches or steering staff. We are supported physically by the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association ( On the CFC entry for the Anacostia Boathouse, you'll see that there's no overhead cost." NCAWPA also is part of the Anacostia Watershed Society ( "You can see their great work in the reclamation projects and plantings along the river, where you can see ospreys, bald eagles," among other wildlife, he adds.

Dragon boats at the Anacostia Community Boathouse are used for races, practices, team-building workshops as well as community "Learn to Paddle Days."

How It Started

The first Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat team started in February 1996 in British Columbia. Dr. Donald McKenzie, a sports medicine physician and exercise physiologist, was dissatisfied with the common belief that women who had undergone breast cancer treatments shouldn't do upper body exercise because it would cause lymphedema and tissue damage. He felt this was counterintuitive, and through the Public Health Agency of Canada — the Canadian equivalent of NIH — he got a grant to conduct a study.

At the end of a race, competing breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams salute each other.  

McKenzie wanted to explore repetitive motion exercises, and felt that dragon-boating would work well because a team consists of 20 women, doing exactly the same stroke exactly the same number of times. Within a short time he was able to demonstrate that not only did this form of exercise not cause lymphedema in BCSs, but it could actually decrease the amount of lymphedema or even prevent it, reduce scarring and rebuild muscle mass. Overall, he found that it produced a physically measurable positive effect.

A less easily measured but significant effect he noticed was the impact that dragon-boating had on the women, their families and communities, says Winter. Paddling proved not only very healthy for the women physically, but also it provided a profoundly positive mental and emotional shift in their outlook. "During most breast cancer treatment, you are passive," he notes. "The most active you are is swallowing a pill. You're not doing anything and you're not in control. Here was something you can do that would improve your health, and you are in control. It makes such a difference when you're able to say, 'Here's something I can control.'"

Daye adds, "The thing I notice about paddling is the concentration, the focus on movement and the water, takes you out of the moment of being sick. In this moment, you are an athlete."

Physical Benefits

Of course dragon-boating isn't just for breast cancer survivors. The health benefits are many: it involves no impact; uses core muscles; builds strong back muscles and strengthens obliques, abdominals and lats.

Adds Winter, "It's a bit like Tai Chi, massaging your internal organs, increasing circulation and cleansing the tissues much faster."

The Future

The face of victory: A breast cancer survivor completes a championship race.  

The formation of the BCS team will be done in conjunction with the NIH Paddling Club through the R&W and NCAWPA, both nonprofits. The BCS team will, in the initial stages at least, come under the auspices of NCAWPA. "We want to establish this club and do the groundwork for the team. But, as a part of the empowerment of the women, it should become its own self-sufficient organization," Winter says. Winter is head racing coach, and says that as of next spring the organization will have a staff of professionally trained coaches and a personal fitness trainer who will develop off-water and preseason workout plans for team members.

Daye works on outreach and organizes the paddling workshops for BCSs. The most recent such event was held last September. "About half of the participants who try paddling come out a second time and get very excited by it," says Winter.

The long-term goals include involving NIH staff, particularly therapists who can help develop a fitness program for the BCS team; and increasing outreach to black and Hispanic women, two of the most underserved populations. "The beauty of this program is that it really can reach out and touch people, even outside the 20 in the boat," says Winter. Daye added, "This program offers all of us the opportunity to do something together. To be, in a sense, in the same boat."

For details about dragon-boating, the BCS team, NCAWPA or the NIH Paddlers, contact Daye ( or Winter ( The CFC ends on Jan. 31.

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