This weekend brings the first-ever Cancer Survivor and Caregiver ceremony to Gig Harbor as a part of the 2018 Gig Harbor Paddlers Cup Regatta. It’s a celebration to honor all cancer survivors and recognize the family caregivers who walk beside them.
In the year since Jeff has died, I have jumped headfirst into the community-building and competitive sport of dragon boating. It’s been one of my ‘things’ to keep me forward-focused, helping me through the grief process.
Sitting with 20 paddlers powers me with strength, hope, a deeper sense of community and encouragement. It feeds my soul with gratitude and is what keeps me coming back (4x a week, in fact!)
What I didn’t expect to learn is that dragon boating and cancer have a deep-rooted history.
Mr. Dragon Boat
At one time, women who had survived treatment for breast cancer were told that they could never again perform upper body exercise. The thinking went that once lymph nodes in the arms were removed, the increase in the blood flow to the arms during exercise would lead to an incurable side effect, known as lymphedema.
In the 90’s, Dr. Donald McKenzie, a physician also known as “Mr. Dragon Boat”, from the University of British Columbia teamed up with dragon boat paddlers to prove that participating in the sport did not lead to lymphedema and in fact, resulted in many benefits in overall physical health and social well-being.
The research findings led to a worldwide movement of breast cancer survivors flocking to the sport of dragon boat racing. At festivals all around the world, ceremonies honoring breast cancer survivors are a major part of what makes dragon boating special.
The first time I experienced one of these ceremonies (at my first race, last year), I knew without a doubt, I wanted to bring a ceremony to Gig Harbor and make it an annual tradition.
I also knew, given my experiences with cancer, it had to be just as meaningful, yet different.
I decided it needed to include survivors of all types of cancer and the caregivers who fight the disease at their loved one’s side. Including the family was paramount to me.
Spousal Caregiving is More Intensive Than Other Forms of Cancer Caregiving
With the overall trend in cancer survival rates extending beyond 5 years, the burden of care usually falls on family caregivers, particularly on the spouse or live-in partner (Li, Xu, Zhoe & Loke, 2015).
Spousal caregiving is a major health concern because research has shown that providing care to a family member with a chronic condition can negatively impact caregivers’ mental and physical health (Monin, 2016).
The Cancer Caregiving in the U.S. Research Report (2016) states 62% of cancer caregivers are in a high-burden situation (hours of care and care tasks provided). Cancer caregivers spend an average of 32.9 hours a week caring for their loved one, with 32% providing 41 or more hours of care weekly, the equivalent of a full-time job.
Actively Supporting Caregivers Helps Survivors
Studies have shown that addressing the needs of the spouse caregiver will have a positive effect on the ill spouse and that caring for spouse caregivers has been found to buffer against patient’s distress (Braun et al., 2007).
Survivors and Caregivers. Bench mates.
On Sunday, I will stand with 200 paddlers, friends, neighbors, and teammates to celebrate and honor the collective strength, courage, and hope of survivors and caregivers.
Dragon boating is renowned for emphasizing the value of teamwork, with your bench mate, and with the boat.
The secret to moving forward is tied to connecting with one another.
If an individual paddler is focused only on their individual momentum, the team connection is lost. So finding our inner courage to stay in sync and reach outward to tap into the team power of the boat is how to keep it moving.
What I’m learning as a paddler – and what I experienced as a cancer caregiver for 10 years – I know we can’t get there on our own.
We can push hard and faster, yet it’s only through working together, with our bench mate, with our team – that’s how we gain speed – and move forward.
Dragons aren’t the monster. Cancer is the monster.
When a dragon boat is ‘dressed’ for a race, each has a dragon head at the front, a tail at the back, and every boat has a drum and seat. Every boat is painted in vibrant colors, the dragon head alive with confident energy. Seeing 20 paddlers paddling together (we hope!) and gliding on the water is beautiful.
And the sound of the paddles hitting the water in unison is magic.
Many think of dragons as monsters – as creatures to be feared.
Yet when you look at Chinese history of dragon boating, the dragons are helpers. The dragon symbolizes power and courage. We awaken their strength. A dragon overcomes obstacles with optimism, fortitude, and resilience until success is hers.
A dragon boat filled with survivors and caregivers is a powerful thing.
Cancer is the monster.
The dragon – and dragon boating is there to help us overcome our obstacles and power us forward, together.
About Secondhand Cancer
Secondhand Cancer was created to equip cancer caregivers and their loved ones with real-life perspective, practical tools, and resources so that we can all better cope with the daily demands of living in a house where cancer exists.
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