Breast cancer survivors crew PeaceHealth's dragon boat

October 1, 2015


The camaraderie that comes with being on a team is especially apparent in dragon boat racing. The 20-odd members of the crew have to keep time with each other or, regardless of their speed and skill, they won't go anywhere.

PeaceHealth breast surgeon Dr. Christine Katterhagen, left, presents Connie Kearney, center, and Janna Brown, right, souvenir oars to commemorate the launch of KBC Victorious, the dragon boat. Kearney is a longtime supporter of the PeaceHealth Kearney Breast Center, which is named in her family's honor. Brown is crew coach for the PeaceHealth boat. Both Kearney and Brown are breast cancer survivors.

"It's the one sport where there are no heroes," says Janna Brown, 62, of Vancouver, Wash. "Everyone has to work together."

Brown has been racing dragon boats for more than a decade. She discovered the sport at a health fair in 2003 and felt an immediate connection to the women on her team, the Pink Phoenix.

In addition to working together to synchronize their timing and refine their strokes, the women shared an important bond: they had all had breast cancer.

"Dragon boat racing was the silver lining to my breast cancer diagnosis," says Brown, an insurance broker.

Van Natta

Brown began paddling in 2002, a year after she was diagnosed. "Not only did it help me regain my physical strength, but it helped the spiritual side," she says. "Who am I? What is my new normal?"

According to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission, 150 dragon boat teams across the world are dedicated to breast cancer survivors.

But until this year, none were based in Vancouver. And Brown thought it was time.

Carol Van Natta, the executive director of the PeaceHealth Southwest Washington Foundation, spearheaded the fundraising to build the boat.

Pink fiberglass
"We knew the dragon boat was a win-win," says Van Natta. "We have a strong breast cancer program here — Kearney Breast Center as well as PeaceHealth St. John in Longview. This boat will participate in races all across the Northwest. It will help spread breast cancer awareness." The Kearney Breast Center is located at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver.

Buddhist monks from the Chu Lin Zen Temple in Portland, Ore., christen the PeaceHealth Kearney Breast Center dragon boat at Vancouver Lake in Vancouver, Wash. The July launching ceremony included a Catholic blessing.


Van Natta says the boat, named KBC Victorious, is the only one she has seen connected to a health organization. Lee and Connie Kearney were the lead donors of an effort that raised almost $20,000. Brown and her husband, Dick Seekins, also contributed.

The PeaceHealth logo and Kearney Breast Center name are scrolled across the body of the pink fiberglass boat, which is covered in breast cancer ribbon "scales" and has a darker pink dragon head and tail at each end. Two paddlers sit on each of its 10 benches, and a caller perches in the bow, facing the paddlers and setting the stroke rhythm. A "sweep" at the back steers the boat using a tiller and calls commands.

Compound blessing
In July, the boat was christened in a ceremony bridging PeaceHealth's Catholic tradition with that of Zen Buddhism, a faith which shares the same Chinese cultural origins as dragon boats. Monks from the Chu Lin Zen Temple in Portland, Ore., participated in the boat christening at Vancouver Lake.

"They're used to doing this kind of thing," Van Natta says of the monks, laughing. "It was new to us."

Since the christening, Brown has received inquiries from more than a dozen women who want to be a part of the KBC Victorious team.

Joan Cavanagh, 72, of Vancouver plans to practice with the team. Though she doesn't compete anymore, Cavanagh is a veteran paddler. She began shortly after her breast cancer diagnosis in 1999, training up to four days a week and participating in regattas as far away as Australia.

"In the beginning, you have no idea what you're doing," says Cavanagh. "It's very humbling." She credits paddling for helping her regain her strength and meet new friends as she recovered.

Lymphedema relief?
In their recoveries, Brown and Cavanagh have avoided lymphedema, a complication of cancer treatment that results in the swelling of the arm or shoulder and is incurable.


Some medical experts, including Dr. Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician from Canada, posit that vigorous exercise such as paddling can stave off lymphedema. McKenzie founded a dedicated dragon boat team of breast cancer survivors in 1996. He concluded that the training helped improve the women's physical and mental health.


But the results of multiple, larger studies are inconclusive, says Dr. Manish Champaneria, a plastic surgeon with PeaceHealth Medical Group who treats breast cancer patients.

"We don't fully understand how (lymphedema) comes about in some patients and not in others," says Champaneria. Radiation plays a role, as does lymph-node removal. The lymphedema can occur years after treatment.

"I've had patients who performed excessive exercise, and it worsened their lymphedema, but exercises have also improved it," he says. "There is no right or wrong answer. But it is always good to maintain a healthy, active lifestyle."

Joyce Masters, a physical therapist at PeaceHealth Southwest, compares the risk of lymphedema to Russian roulette: "For some people, vacuuming at home makes it worse; for others, the dragon boat makes it better. It's hard to predict.

"But every day the medical community is getting better at recognizing the issue," Masters says.

Dedicated crew
In the meantime, Brown will continue to recruit paddlers, with the hope of getting a team on Vancouver Lake this month. They'll practice every week even through the winter with their eye toward competing in some local races.

The top teams finish those 500-meter races in less than 2 minutes, Brown says. They'll compete vigorously knowing "it's the group support, exercise and long-term friendship that make it worthwhile."

Buddhist monks from the Chu Lin Zen Temple in Portland, Ore., christen the PeaceHealth Kearney Breast Center dragon boat at Vancouver Lake in Vancouver, Wash. The July launching ceremony included a Catholic blessing.


Copyright © 2015 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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