On a Saturday morning, a group of 20 women paddles in sync to the coach’s call on the Anacostia River in Washington. They are members of Go Pink! DC, a dragon boat racing team.
“I love the team spirit, I just love everything about it. It is like a floating support group on the water," said Lydia Collins, who joined five years ago after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
Dragon boating is a team sport that goes back more than 2,000 years. The boat is adorned with a dragon head and tail before races. In recent years, a growing number of breast cancer survivor groups around the world have started to use the sport to rebuild their lives and forge friendships.
The paddlers in Collins' group are breast cancer survivors and their supporters.
“It is sort of an easy entry sport because on the same boat people at different levels can be doing the same sport," said Annette Rothemel, a breast cancer survivor who co-founded Go Pink! DC in 2006.
Rothemel, who is also a researcher with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), says it can be physically demanding, especially for someone who is still undergoing cancer treatments.
“It is hard, but I think you have to challenge yourself in life," said Ronda Hartzel, who receives chemotherapy treatment every three weeks. "This is something I look forward to. I get to be out here with my sisters and supporters that understand what I am going through and help motivate me. So it makes me stronger and it makes me feel better."
While dragon boating originated in ancient China, its modern form of racing began in the 1970s. Since then, it has become a fast growing international competitive sport. Breast cancer survivor teams have also cropped up around the world.
“I am sure it is in the multiples of hundreds. That must be 300, 400 teams around the world," said Rothemel.
Collins points out a physical benefit from the motion of paddling.
“When I am paddling, it helps with my lymphedema, which is swelling of the lymphatic fluid. When you have mastectomy, sometimes you wind up with this condition. We have many paddlers wear compression sleeves," she said.
In addition to weekly practices, Go Pink! DC races against other breast cancer survivor teams in dragon boat festivals. A Pink Carnation Ceremony takes place at each event to honor those lost to the cancer.
“Unfortunately that is a sad part of having a team of breast cancer survivors. One passed away several years ago and another one this past January. She had been with us for a year," said Rothemel.
At a recent Washington DC Dragon Boat Festival, the team earned medals. “We earned two silver medals, one in the 250 meter and one in the 500 meter [race]," said Rothemel.
Paddling together, Rothemel says, the cancer survivors feel a sense of sisterhood and share good times - both of which they say they treasure.