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Dragon Boat Racing!

Monday, 12 April 2010

Fiona Tiernan

Ailish Daly, Senior Physiotherapist and Lymphoedema Therapist, UPMC Beacon Hospital

Fiona was diagnosed with Breast Cancer in June 2005. She had 6 months of chemotherapy and then a mastectomy and breast reconstruction surgery at the same time. She was rediagnosed in May of last year but has gone through her chemotherapy and is now on a maintenance drug.

She puts her ability to get through this bout of treatment down to being in good physical shape, because after her first illness she made a conscious effort to become fitter and healthier, and had read that exercise can decrease the chance of recurrance. She came across the Breast in a Boat initiative when she spoke to a relative who had been part of a Dragon Boat racing team in Canada that was made up of women who had had Breast Cancer.

The history of A Breast in a Boat

"Dr. Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia, launched Abreast In A Boat in 1996 to test the myth that repetitive upper-body exercise in women treated for breast cancer encourages lymphedema.

Dr McKenzie believed that by following a special exercise and training program, women could avoid lymphedema and enjoy active, full lives. As we followed his program, we 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 none of the existing cases became worse.

From a medical study involving one boat of 25 women in 1996, the organization has now grown to include five boats based in Vancouver and has inspired many other teams to form. Read articles about the medical history of Abreast In A Boat in the Canadian Medical Association Journal:"

Fiona Tiernan:-

Why do it?

Women who finish their treatment for breast cancer can end up feeling very weak in their upper body and nervous about doing exercise to get them back to normal, especially if they have had a mastectomy or lymph nodes removed.

There are no fitness programmes specifically designed for breast cancer survivors, and they are often warned against upper body exercise due to lymphedema (condition of localized fluid retention and tissue swelling caused by a compromised lymphatic system) and there are no medically backed fitness routine that they are recommended to take up to regain strength physically.

Often they have had lymph nodes removed, which can be uncomfortable, and can sometimes lead to swelling. Paddling and upper body exercise can help the flow of the lymph nodes and provide relief.

Can you tell me how it all began?

12 years ago there was a doctor in Canada who didn't believe that women shouldn't exercise after having breast cancer. He developed an exercise programme designed for women to build up their upper body strength so that they could dragon boat race. Since then it was proved safe and they called themselves 'A Breast in a Boat'.

There are now 150 teams around the world that compete in genuine dragon boat racing competitions, 4 of which are in the UK. There are also teams in Italy, Australian, U.S and the Czech Republic.

What is dragon boat racing?

A dragon boat is a long quite flat boat that has a team of 20 who have one paddle each. There are ten women paddling at each side. It is quite a traditional sport and the boats have a specific design with a dragon's head at the top and a dragon's tail at the end. The person at the top of the boat bangs the drums while they row.

The race begins after a Chinese priest performs a ceremony to awaken the spirit of the dragon. And there is always a mini ceremony for women who have passed away due to breast cancer, where they put a flower in the water, so the sport has really embraced the Breast in a Boat initiative.

How do you get involved?

Fiona met a lady from Canada through her sister in law, who told her about it. This struck a cord with her because she was so keen to stay fit, as she had been re-diagnosed herself that May and was at that stage going through treatment. She contacted the original club in Vancouver who sent out a training manual, and she got in touch with clubs in the UK who were brilliant at giving her advice and guidance.

Did Irish health professionals agree with the programme?

Her main breakthrough was by getting medical support from physios and nurses. She has a physio on board from the Beacon Hospital, and her initiative is backed by Dr. David Fennily and Dr. Jennifer Westripe.

The physio, Dr. Ailish Daly, voluntarily is gave her time to modify the training course so that people can train to build up their strength before going out on the boats. We now have our own training manual for women to follow themselves before getting involved in the team.

How will it work?

They are having an open day in Grand Canal Dock for women to sign up on the 17th April. At the moment it will just be for women in the East, but eventually they hope for it to be nationwide.
The women who sign up will take their training manuals. We hope to start off with three boats, all of which still need to be bought. Each boat costs 35k, and has to be specifically with the dragon's head and the dragon tail.

The plan is that women who meet each other at the signing up event will plan to train together if they are from local areas, and use the manual to do it in their own time, as opposed to planning workout session. The programme is based on a six week programme to build up fitness.

How will you learn how to row?

There have a coach from a U.K. dragon boat racing team who lives in Clonmel who is on board to teach them how to row.

When will you be competing?

Fiona has been getting correspondence from various competitions to invite our team to compete, but her priorities at the moment is to get women to sign up and train, and to buy the boats.

What is the name of your team?

A lot of teams worldwide have used names that incorporate a pun or phrase about breasts, but they decided not to go down that road. We are called Plurabell Paddlers. Fiona got the name from reading 'Finnegan's Wake' by James Joyce, where the Liffey was called Anna Livia Plurabelle. Their aim is to start training on the canal in Dublin, but eventually end up rowing on the Liffey.
Other names include:- A Breast or Knot, Paddle for Pink, Breaststrokers, the Twin Titties.

How are you going to raise the money for the boats?

Well we're doing as much fundraising as possible locally, and we've written to the local authorities for funding. We are setting up a website (this will be set up by next Monday when they are on the show) which will have an account number on it for people to lodge funds into.

Dr. Ailish Daly

Why do you think it is worthwhile?

I think it is very valuable for a number of reasons:

1. Post treatment side effects such as deconditioning and fatigue are common for lots of cancer survivors. There can also be a lot of uncertainty among people as to what kind of exercise / activity is ok.

A group like this offers people to opportunity to exercise in a safe environment with back up from other participants and also physio and lymphoedema therapists to advise on appropriate exercise and lymphoedema management.

2. Fully support the goals of increasing breast cancer awareness and exercise among survivors.

Are women reluctant to exercise after breast surgery, and why?

Like everyone getting started with exercise after illness or injury can be difficult, good to get support from others in the same situation A lot of people are unsure about whether it is ok to exercise after cancer treatment, particularly with regards to the risk of developing lymphoedema. This uncertainty may be a barrier for people to exercise.

What are the dangers of exercising after surgery?

Like after every surgery or injury a return to exercise should be undertaken in a paced and graded programme. The major worry would be the risk of injury if some one returns to exercise to soon after surgery. For this reason we recommend guidance from a chartered physiotherapist.

What should women do if they want to exercise after surgery?
Ask their surgeon and their chartered physiotherapist for advice.

How confident were you in this initiative, were you worried about being the first physio to put your name to this project in this country?

I think this is a great initiative and have full confidence in it. My main recommendation is that if you want to start exercising after cancer treatment to talk to your oncologist / surgeon and physio to make sure the programme is suitable.

Are there other physios that would be reluctant to get involved because it is the first in Ireland?

Having spoken to other physios and Lymphoedema therapists everyone so far has been fully supportive and very positive to the group

Any advice for women who may be in Fiona's situation and not sure how to build up body strength? Is there any other fitness programme around that is safe for them?

Not that I am aware of. Main advice is to keep it simple, start with taking a short walk each day to build up general fittness. When you feel you are ready for more consider talking to a chartered physio about an exercise programme

Prices/Stockists/Relevant Information:
We hear how breast cancer survivors will be keeping their fitness afloat in the future.

Our bank account information to make donations is:
"Dragon Boat Project" bank account at AIB Sandymount.

Account no;12015075

Sort code no: 933600

Our website:

Our ph: 086 036 3449