Living with cancer blog

Cancer survivors show spirit with dragon boats

By Sheryl M. Ness, R.N. August 3, 2012

Dragon boating originated in China around 2,500 years ago. Today the sport is making a unique comeback for breast cancer survivors as a way to stay active and connect with others.

A dragon boat is a long, colorful wooden or fiberglass boat adorned with a dragon head at the front and tail at the back — with room for about 20 paddlers and a drummer. Teams of cancer survivors and their supporters paddle in harmony to the beat of a drum. The sport of dragon boating provides the benefit of vigorous exercise and may help prevent or relieve the symptoms of lymphedema — a common side effect from the effects of breast surgery or radiation.

One of the first breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams was formed in 1996 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Researchers studied the survivors during and after three months of participation and found that contrary to the prevailing medical thinking at that time, strenuous exercise actually provided positive benefits in that none of the women had developed lymphedema.

Today, many survivors participate in the sport. It is estimated there are about 150 breast cancer teams around the world. In Minnesota and Arizona, local teams include breast cancer survivors from the community as well as corporate paddlers from Mayo Clinic who were inspired to get involved in the sport. Throughout the year, teams get together to compete in local and national races. It is a winning concept that includes exercise and the spirit of support and friendship, as well as increased public awareness of breast cancer.

If you would like to get involved with a dragon boat team in your area, check out the U.S. Dragon Boat Federation website ( or the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission website ( For more information on the Mayo Clinic dragon boat teams, send an e-mail to Toni Kay Mangskau at

I would love to hear from readers who have been involved in the dragon boat experience. Please add to this discussion!


Sheryl M. Ness, R.N.

Aug. 03, 2012