Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Racing

Submitted By

Jim Thaxton
Three Rivers District Health Department, Kentucky
August 7, 2013

Three Rivers District Health Department received a grant from the Komen affiliate in Lexington, KY to purchase a dragon boat, a big wooden drum, a twelve foot wooden rudder, 22 life jackets and 20 t-grip International Dragon Boat approved pink paddles, a 32’ boat trailer, to form a breast cancer survivor dragon boat racing team.

I travel with the Kentucky Thorough-Breasts (KTB) "Surviving in Sync" breast cancer survivor (BCS) dragon boat racing team to various dragon boat competitions throughout the USA and Canada. I am pleased to see local health departments participating in the competitions and also actively engaged in providing educational materials and services. Since the arrival of their pink dragon boat on Valentine’s Day in 2009 that KTB christened KT (pronounced Katie), the team raised over $40,000 for St. Elizabeth Women's Wellness Centers at their annual festival Paddling for Cancer Awareness KTB has had numerous articles in newspapers throughout the Tri-State raising cancer awareness. KTB is frequently featured on television and radio. KTB now has two dragon boats and a support team, KTB's Saddle and Paddle. KTB spawned two BCS teams: the Derby City Dragons in Louisville and the Paducah River Racks. In 2011 Three Rivers District Health Department (TRDHD) earned the coveted Innovation in Public Health Award for their BCS dragon boat initiative. Later in the fall, the Kentucky State Legislature presented the KTB and TRDHD with a formal citation recognizing their achievements in raising cancer awareness, encouraging physical activity, healthy lifestyle choices, and introducing new tourism events in Kentucky.

The Lexington, Kentucky Komen Affiliate for the Cure sent out a request for proposal to address the need for Kentucky counties to raise awareness about breast cancer. Lexington Komen was seeking innovative ways to reach an underserved population. Three Rivers District Health Department Health Educator Jim Thaxton and his family were caring for a young woman undergoing treatment for breast cancer and stumbled upon the research of Dr. McKenzie from Vancouver, BC who discovered that repetitive motion required of dragon boat racing teams was beneficial to women who had breast cancer surgery. Thaxton, recognized the opportunity that a 52’ pink canoe with a dragon’s head, big wooden kettle drum and colorful tail would be to both raise cancer awareness and at the same time provide a unique physical therapy program for local breast cancer survivors. Komen approved the grant. Thaxton recruited a coach who had moved to the area from Vancouver, BC with 15-years racing, training and dragon boat coaching experience. He then visited breast cancer support groups and recruited team members. The rest, as they say, is now history. Breast cancer survivor dragon boat racing is the fastest growing niche on-water team sport in the world.

Komen approved the grant in March of 2008. The boat was ordered, built in China, shipped to the United States, and arrived on February 14, 2009. In preparation for the arrival, Thaxton contacted breast cancer support groups within a 50 mile radius of Three Rivers District Health Department and recruited 22 breast cancer survivors, a coach, local sponsors and support team members. Coach Priscilla Elgersma began training in February using the pool at Northern Kentucky University. The team participated in the annual First Lady of Kentucky’s Breast Cancer Survivor Celebration of Hope in Frankfort. Television stations captured First Lady Jane Beshear opening the eyes of the dragon. The team marched with their boat in the Pegasus Parade in Louisville. This is the parade prior to the Kentucky Derby. Again, the boat and team received television and press coverage that reached a national audience. Since then, KTB’s participated in festivals and parades throughout the US and Canada, reached millions of people in newspaper and television markets, and formed their own dragon boat festival raising funds for St. Elizabeth Healthcares’ Women’s Wellness Centers and other local caner awareness organizations. KTB has trained over 3,000 local adults and youth to race dragon boats.

When Dr. McKenzie was asked how important the Abreast in a Boat project was, he responded. “It is an approach to promoting health and raising breast cancer awareness that is driven by women with the disease. It reaches out to other women and offers them a message of hope and support. It is helping to change attitudes toward “life after breast cancer,” and it encourages women to lead full and active lives. It is making a difference.” When he said this, there were only six BCS teams worldwide; there are now over 400 in the USA and Canada and the BCS component of the sport continues to grow. What everyone on the team knew but didn’t dwell upon was that this disease still takes lives and in their short history the Kentucky Thorough-Breasts “Surviving in Sync” has lost two team members. They have also been there for team members during a recurrence. There is a bond within KTB that transcends beyond a typical athletic team. Spouses, significant others, care givers and members from the community at large formed a support team, KTB’s Saddle and Paddle. There may be no “I” in team, however in KTB there’s hope, faith, and love.

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