University of Vermont

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A Sisterhood of Survivors

Dragonheart Vermont
Dragonheart Vermont practices on Lake Champlain. (Photo courtesy of Dragonheart Vermont)

The thought of participating in an intense physical activity with dozens of other women, much less in a sport she’d never heard of before, was the furthest thing from Karen Meyer's mind when she met with her oncologist during treatment for breast cancer. Six years later, the former vice president for UVM State and Federal Relations can’t imagine not being part of Dragonheart Vermont Sisters, a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team that recently won a national championship in the popular ancient Chinese sport.

Meyer and fellow UVM employees Penni Cross, research review administrator in the Research Protections Office; Pam Blum, assistant dean for finance and administration in the College of Education and Social Services; and Dr. Kim Dittus, assistant professor in the College of Medicine, all came to the sport while in recovery, and credit Dragonheart with inspiring them to remain active and overcome the disease.

“I was talking to my radiation oncologist about fitness and being well and he says, ‘You’ve got to join these dragon boats,'" says Meyer, who is currently on the board of directors for the UVM Foundation. “I’d never heard of it before, but I trusted my oncologist. It was a very compliant time in my life when you do what your oncologist says. It really is a story of recovery and joy and the people we all hang out with are just remarkable. Every one of them has inspired me to be healthy and active. The challenge of competition and the incredible satisfaction of improving and winning is amazing. For many people, that’s not a chance you get in your 50s and 60s.”

Living life after being diagnosed

Invented 2,500 years ago in China by a group of people who believed it would ensure prosperous and bountiful crops, dragon boat racing is practiced by 50 million people today. The emergence of the breast cancer survivor division in the mid-1990s can be traced to a Canadian sports medicine physician who debunked the myth that women with breast cancer shouldn’t participate in strenuous upper body activities. Linda Dyer of Philadelphia brought it to Burlington in 2004 after borrowing a boat from a team in Boston and starting Dragonheart. The club eventually bought four boats of their own, naming them Lady, Champ, Sittin’ Pretty and Jill in honor of one of Dragonheart’s first team members who succumbed to the disease. “Jill sat with Linda many nights dreaming about how to make this happen,” says Blum.

Blum discovered the sport while looking for a kayak and is driven by the desire to show other breast cancer survivors that they can have a full and active life. “I wasn’t a big support group kind-of-person and didn’t really like sitting and sharing, so dragon boating was perfect for me,” says Blum, who is a founding member along with Cross. “I like the concept of doing something active as a breast cancer survivor and showing other breast cancer survivors who might not know that this is possible, that there is life after that diagnosis. It’s not just about being active, but also being healthy, getting exercise, eating well, and experiencing the shining moment of competing. That’s really the biggest thing for me. Life does not have to end; it can be even more full than you ever imagined.”

Cross read about the sport while accompanying a friend on a visit to her oncologist’s office and decided to check out Dragonheart. “We went down to the waterfront and I knew immediately after one night that it was what I wanted to do,” says Cross. “I was celebrating a five-year marker for myself in 2004, so it just seemed like a great way to celebrate my survivorship. I’ve been with Dragonheart for 10 years now. It’s a cause that I believe in with great passion.”

Dragonheart’s 50 members practice three nights a week in a boat that weighs 800 pounds and train year-round for racing distances ranging from 200 to 2,000 meters. Crews consist of 20 paddlers, one drummer and one steer person. “We train hard and have added winter training with a trainer,” says Cross. “Many of the women on the team are in the best shape of their lives.”

The workouts paid dividends in September at the 2013 USDBF Club Crew National Championships, where the Dragonheart Vermont club won championships in five divisions. The winning teams qualified for the the 2014 Club Crew World Championships in Ravena, Italy in the spring. "We get funny comments like, 'I can’t believe we’re racing against our grandmothers,'" says Meyer. "And then we beat them."

A family fundraising festival 

Dragonheart sponsors Lake Champlain Dragon Boat Festival at Waterfront Park every August as part of its fundraising mission. Dozens of teams race at the event, which has raised more than $1.3 million for cancer-related organizations such as Fletcher Allen Healthcare's Radiation-Oncology Department, Vermont Respite House, the Cancer Patient Support Program and Camp Ta-Kum-Ta. The event also supports Dragonheart’s Survivorship Now wellness initiative to help bridge the gap in support for cancer survivors between treatment and recovery by offering opportunities for exercise, connection, education and support.

While Meyer, Cross and Blum consider Dragonheart an incredibly supportive group, they also value the reprieve it provides from the omnipresent thoughts associated with having breast cancer.

“We never talk about cancer,” Meyer says. “It’s just not something we do when we’re out there. I joke that we’re a non-support group, support group. It provides a needed break, because there is tragedy. We used to have 60 members, but we’ve lost some sisters along the way. Everyone is vulnerable, but so is everyone in life. Part of our gig is that we’re showing off how to live this way and not succumbing to the worry of the disabling effects of cancer and cancer treatment, and to carry on.”

Watch a video of Dragonheart Vermont at the 2013 U.S. Dragon Boat Federation Club Crew National Championships:

DHVT at Nationals 2013 from Eric Pearson on Vimeo.