“Once you’ve had a cancer diagnosis they give you all of this fluff and puff stuff, this emotional stuff,” said Laurie Gauper, cancer survivor. “But for a lot of us, that isn’t the kind of support we really want or need.”
For the St. Mary’s Hospital registered nurse, the support she needed came in the form of a boat and a paddle.
Laurie is the captain of the Proud Marys, a dragon boat team sponsored by St. Mary’s that will be competing for the fourth time in this Saturday’s Capital Lakes Dragon Fest. It’s a team made up of St. Mary’s nurses, doctors and physician assistants. Hospital President Jon Rozenfeld will be paddling this year as well.
Dragon boat racing is the signature activity of TEAMSurvivor Madison, a nonprofit organization that provides opportunities for women who have survived any type of cancer diagnosis to participate in physical activities.
“It’s nice to talk, but this is activity based,” Laurie said. “And you’re doing it with women who have shared something pretty significant in their lives.”
Traditionally, cancer patients had been told to dial back on exercise or other strenuous physical activity, especially while undergoing treatment. But in the 1990’s, Canadian sports medicine physician Dr. Donald McKenzie questioned that rationale. He formed a dragon boat team of 24 women with breast cancer, saying the ancient sport was an ideal exercise for them because while it provided a good upper body workout, it was non-weight-bearing with a low risk of injury.
Over time, the women experienced fewer cases of lymphedema, as well as vast improvement in their overall physical and mental health. They also found that the experience of training and working together to paddle the long, narrow, canoe-like dragon boat bonded them in ways they never could have imagined.
“Dragon boating is an incredible team building experience,” Laurie said. “You can have a team of really strong guys, yet my team of 60-year-old women, or just women, will beat them because we’re paddling together.”
All of the women on that Canadian team have continued to paddle – the oldest member is now 91. Today, dragon boat racing is the only international sport that has a survivor category.
Jo Winkler-Bley, a registered nurse with Dean Hematology and Oncology, learned about dragon boat racing through TEAMSurvivor Madison. With the support of her boss and clinical adviser, she formed a team that included both current and former cancer patients. This will be the third year the Dean Oncobusters have participated in the Capital Lakes Dragon Fest.
“Each year we’ve had patients in our boat who we call survivors right from the beginning of their diagnosis, because they’re surviving this disease,” Jo said. “Last year we had one woman who was treated on Friday and came out and paddled Friday night, which was just awesome.”
The Dean Oncobusters include both male and female patients and some family members or other supporters, as well as oncology nurses and physicians. For Jo, it’s a way to provide patients with an opportunity to step out of their comfort zones and try something they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
“As we recruit people, initially they think they can’t do it because they’re undergoing chemo or because they have cancer,” she said. “It’s very empowering to them to realize it’s something they can do, and in fact
they’re really encouraged to be physically active during treatment. It helps
with their survival.”
It also makes a profound impact on those who are involved.
“On my way home I was overwhelmed with happiness and belonging,” said one cancer survivor who paddled for the Dean Oncobusters last year. “Remember when all this came up? I was asking you where were my people. Thank you for taking me to them. They were everywhere. What a gift.”
Capital Lakes Dragon Fest
The Capital Lakes Dragon Fest will be held Saturday, June 20 at Vilas Park on Lake Wingra (702 S. Randall Ave, Madison). There will be an “Awakening of the Dragon” ceremony at 8 a.m. when performers dance in costume, and then place the dragon heads on the front of the boats. Races begin at 8:30 a.m. with final heats beginning around 1:50 p.m. The Dean Oncobusters and the Proud Marys will be facing off at 8:30 in the first heat of the day, along with the Wild-Draggin-Wood (sponsored by Wildwood Clinic).
At 1 p.m., a Petal Ceremony will be held. Cancer survivors will go out on the lake in the dragon boats and drop rose petals in the water in honor of those who have been lost to cancer.
“My mother had breast cancer when she was 35,” said Laurie. “I never knew about that growing up. That was in the mid-1950s. I don’t know whether it was shame, or what, but people didn’t talk about breast cancer. It’s too bad she didn’t have something like a TEAMSurvivor or some support where she could go out and not hide the fact that she had breast cancer, and still go out and do things in life. So for me, on a personal note, that’s where I come from. I always think of my mom when I do the petal ceremony.”
The Capital Lakes Dragon Fest is a free, family friendly event. There are 35 teams from around the Midwest. We encourage you to come out and cheer the Dean Oncobusters and the Proud Marys on to victory!