Central Coast SurviveOars paddle on

Dragon boat racing promotes fitness & friendship among cancer survivors

If you are driving past Morro Bay and happen to see the head of a prehistoric monster gliding through the water, do not call your local Scottish anthropologist; boats adorned with the head of a dragon are now a common site on the waters surrounding Morro Rock. The Estero Bay is home to our very own local team of Dragon Boat paddlers, better known as the Central Coast SurviveOars.

Dragon Boat Racing is a growing sport worldwide. The Central Coast SurviveOars are part of Team Survivor, a national organization that, according to information found on its www.teamsurvivor.org website, whose goal is to “foster and promote exercise opportunities for women affected by cancer.” 

This local group of women, the SurviveOars, consists of cancer survivors and their supporters. The group includes women of all fitness levels and ages, some as young as 89, who have survived various types of cancer; they welcome all to participate in their activities. 

The benefits of exercise are now clearly recognized as a vital component of a cancer treatment and survivorship program. The Morro Bay group is led by occupational therapist, Leslyn Keith, who specializes in the management of lymphedema. Keith, along with Denise Youngman, Rose Marie Battaglia and Shoosh Crotzee started the Central Coast SurviveOars after a patient pitched the idea to her. The boats themselves, stored and maintained at Sub-Sea Kayaks and Tours in Morro Bay, are truly works of art.

Under the guidance of Keith, paddlers are instructed in the proper form and technique of paddling their boat in order to safely develop endurance and strength. These local paddlers take their sport seriously, practicing three or four days a week and competing nationally. 

The SurviveOars’ practices focus on endurance, stroke technique and timing, and a variety of drills to improve strength and style. This type of supervised training aids in the recovery of the physical and psychological toll of cancer and its treatments.

“Many of the ladies talk about how dragon boat racing has helped them recover and get stronger,” said Keith. “It helps to give them their body and their life back.”

Many of the team members are breast cancer survivors. Recreational dragon boat paddling is now recognized as being beneficial in promoting wellness and a healthy life style for those diagnosed with breast cancer. This is evidenced by the development of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission. The IBCPC is an international organization whose mandate is to “encourage the establishment of breast cancer dragon boat teams, within the framework of participation and inclusiveness.”

The various benefits of paddling for breast cancer survivors were first noted at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada in 1996. Dr. Don McKenzie, a professor in exercise physiology, developed a program to determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors. He chose dragon boat paddling as the epitome of strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise and was able to show that lymphedema seemed to be reduced and the women were fitter, healthier and happier.

Our local team has traveled and been a part of such events as the Long Beach Dragon Boat Festival, the Arizona Dragon Boating Festival, the Lighted Boat Parade in Morro Bay and Oktoberfest in Baywood Park. Over the past eight years, supporters worldwide have attended the International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat Festivals. 

The first festival to be held in the United States is scheduled for October 2014 in Sarasota, Florida. The Central Coast SurviveOars are making plans to take part and compete at the Festival alongside teams from Australia, Africa, Italy, New Zealand, Canada and more – with all having the distinction of surviving breast cancer. 

Want to help support our local team? Visit the website of these courageous ladies for more information regarding donations and purchase raffle tickets for a handmade quilt honoring women affected by breast cancer. The drawing will be held at the Lighted Boat Parade in Morro Bay on Dec. 7. For more information, send an email to surviveoars@gmail.com or visit surviveoars.org.

Tom Spillane, M.D. - is a board certified oncologist/hematologist at Coastal Integrative Cancer Care in San Luis Obispo.