Breast cancer survivors find strength in paddling

Hometown team gears up for international race in Italy this summer

“Big. Bigger. Biggest. Race pace.”

These were the words Phyllis Manley Lee shouted out as 22 women paddled their 40-foot longboat down the Ohio River one recent summer evening. As the drummer for the Derby City Dragons racing team, Phyllis’ job is to set the cadence and provide encouragement to her team to push themselves and paddle hard.

Phyllis is a founding member of the Derby City Dragons, which began in 2013 and now has 30 women members, all breast cancer survivors. The group is one of only about 100 dragon boat racing teams in the world. Not only is the team bonded through their shared cancer experiences, the women also share a passion for healthy living, camaraderie and paddling.

Team member Stephanie Anderson, age 48, described the group as a very joyous one.

“It’s different from other groups. We talk and we laugh about other things. At the end of the day, it’s all about sisterhood. We understand what everyone is going through,” said Stephanie, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2008.

Now cancer-free for nine years, Stephanie credits Norton Cancer Institute’s multidisciplinary care for seeing her through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. As a former figure skater and instructor, she had always been active. With the blessing of her oncologist, she decided to give paddling a try.

Stephanie learned that exercise was one way to help relieve lymphedema, a painful and potentially serious tissue swelling that can happen after cancer. Soon, she also found paddling brought a powerful sense of peace.

“You leave all your troubles on the water,” she said.

The team practices on the Ohio River and typically can be seen out on the water — with their signature pink paddles — on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. This summer, they added a Sunday practice to prepare for the International Breast Cancer Paddler’s Commission’s (IBCPC) Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place this July in Florence, Italy.

“We are all really excited,” Stephanie said. “Our stamina is much better than it was in previous years, and we can do the 500-meter sprint without getting winded. We have to be ready to compete in Italy.”

The IBCPC’s Dragon Boat Festival occurs every four years and attracts up to 5,000 breast cancer survivors. This summer’s six-day event will host participants from every continent. The women will paddle their colorful longboats along the Arno River. The race is not competitive, so there is no winner — but as Stephanie reminds us, every participant is a champion as they create bonds of sisterhood and push themselves to do more than they think they can.

Norton Cancer Institute is proud to be a community partner of the Derby City Dragons team.

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