The custom of dragon boating dates back more than 2,000 years. Its origin was a commemoration of the patriot poet Qu Yuan, who drowned himself in the Mei Lo River after being exiled from his state. It is said the villagers, who loved Qu Yuan, feared the fish and water dragons would devour his body so they rowed around the river splashing their paddles and beating their drums to scare away the beats. And to ensure that Qu Yuan never went hungry, or maybe to divert the fish from eating his body, they wrapped rice in leaves and threw them into the river. Rice cakes are still eaten today as part of dragon boat festival celebrations in Asia.
Some of the other original rituals still practiced today at many festivals include the “awakening of the dragon” by dotting the eyes of the dragon’s head on each boat. The ceremony is conducted to end the dragon’s slumber and cleanse and bless the area of the competition, the competitors, and their boats. One ritual thankfully no longer practised is the stone throwing by the crowd at rival boats, and it is no longer necessary that a boat capsize and at least one person drown – this was considered a special sacrifice to the gods and a sign of good luck!
Today, dragon boating is one of the fastest growing sports in the world. Dragon boat racing is a global phenomenon and is an annual event.
The Breast Cancer Dragon Boating Phenomenon
Dragon boat paddling by breast cancer survivors began in Vancouver in 1996. Dr Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia, launched the dragon boat team Abreast in a Boat in 1996 to test the myth that repetitive upper-body exercise in women treated for breast cancer encourages lymphedema. Following the lead of the original Abreast in a Boat team in Vancouver, many teams have been formed throughout the world.
Dr McKenzie believed that by following a special exercise and training program, women could avoid lymphedema and enjoy active, full lives. The women who came together as Abreast in a Boat followed his program, during which the women were carefully monitored by a sports medicine physician, a physiotherapist and a nurse. Dr McKenzie’s theory was proven correct. No new cases of lymphedema occurred and one of the existing cases became worse.
Why paddle? Through the strenuous demands of dragon boat paddling, paddlers have learned that they can push the limits of their physical endurance and have fun doing it. Paddlers have grown stronger as individuals and as a group. They begin as strangers with only breast cancer in common. But this isn’t only about paddling, it’s also about educating people and letting them know they can made a difference. It is a story about a wonderfully positive response to a deadly disease.
One in nine women will get breast cancer in their lifetime. No one can ignore the statistics, but awareness about the quality of the life after treatment needs to be raised. Breast cancer dragon boat teams world-wide, are raising the awareness in the best possible way – by living their message. Breast cancer can affect anyone, young or old, but there is a life after breast cancer – active, fun, powerful, upbeat, vigorous life.