Manatee-Sarasota's first breast cancer dragon-boat team to make debut

jajones1@bradenton.comDecember 6, 2013 

They call it being bitten by the dragon.

The urge to go dragon-boat racing, that is.

Members of Manatee-Sarasota's first breast cancer survivor dragon-boat racing team got the bug paddling with other survivors in Tampa and Punta Gorda.

Local team members say they like the camaraderie, the exercise and the fun of the sport, which originated in China. Ten pairs of paddlers, sitting side by side, race other boats weighing up to 900 pounds when empty. A dragon boat, fully crewed, can easily weigh 4,000 pounds.

Nymah Keyes epitomizes the brave spirit of team members who range in age from 33 to 82.

In her late 70s, she sailed solo from Fort Lauderdale to Palmetto to start a new life.

"I never looked back," she said of the voyage.

She now lives on the sailboat at Palmetto's Regatta Pointe Marina.

Her idyllic life was threatened when breast cancer was detected in June 2012.

"I am very fortunate. Someone was watching over me," she said.

Early detection and a series of radiation treatments helped save her life. She is now cancer-free.

When Keyes, 82, heard about plans to start a dragon-boat team composed of breast cancer survivors, she raised her hand.

"I love being outdoors and on the water," she said.

Angela Long, 45, of Sarasota is a 10-year survivor, mother and full-time advocate. She played a key role in organizing a local rowing team.

Kim Bonomo, president and captain of the Save Our Sisters team in Miami, turned to Long for help recruiting a team from Manatee-Sarasota to compete in the Dragon Boat Festival at Nathan Benderson Park next October.

With 3,000 women competing in the 2014 Dragon Boat Festival expected to fill 8,000 hotel room nights during their stay, organizers reasoned Manatee-Sarasota should be represented, too.

That didn't start to become a reality until about two months ago, when Bonomo reached out to Long and her list of breast cancer survivor contacts.

"When we put in a bid to bring this international dragon-boat festival to Florida, one of our missions was to get a team going in Sarasota," said Bonomo, herself a survivor. "Angela has a blog and has been very proactive in helping survivors deal with their disease."

Sarasota becomes the eighth of 10 Florida dragon-boat teams promised for the festival, Bonomo said.

"It's not anything that I ever thought I would do," Long said.

She said she was impressed by the enthusiasm of the paddlers and their mindset: "We're moving forward."

Long also liked the fact any survivor could be a team member regardless of age or physical ability.

Early Saturday morning, team members will be able to paddle a dragon boat for the first time on their home water at Nathan Benderson Park near the Manatee-Sarasota county line west of Interstate 75.

Later, at 7 p.m. Saturday, they will join other breast cancer survivor dragon boat-racing teams, wearing pink bras, hats and T-shirts on a pink dragon boat in the Sarasota Holiday Parade.

Dragon-boat teams taking part include the Pink Dragon Ladies of Tampa, Save Our Sisters from Miami and Missin' Mammaries of Punta Gorda. The Manatee-Sarasota team is so new it doesn't yet have a name.

Jane Frost, president of the International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission, is in town from Vancouver, British Columbia, for the debut of the Manatee-Sarasota dragon-boat team.

"Anyone can do dragon-boat racing. It doesn't matter how old or how fit you are," Frost said, crediting Dr. Don McKenzie for starting the first breast cancer dragon-boat team in 1996.

McKenzie recruited 24 volunteers to paddle the dragon boat and prove the benefits of repetitive upper-body exercise, Frost said.

McKenzie was also able to demonstrate paddling a dragon boat would not cause lymphedema, a possible side affect of treatment breast cancer patients feared, Frost said.

Team member Connie Keen of Sarasota was diagnosed with breast cancer five years ago, but recently received an all-clear from Moffit Cancer Center.

"It's a shock to your system when you receive the diagnosis, but then you go into survival mode," Keen said. "You survive by staying positive.

Keen was able to draw strength from her parents, who come from small villages in Greece.

"Life is tough, be strong, get through it," she said of their encouragement.

Once diagnosed, breast cancer survivors are "in a club you never willingly joined," she said.

Just as breast cancer survivors need help dealing with their disease, the new Manatee-Sarasota dragon boat club of paddlers needs more members and help from the community. For information on helping or joining the team, email or call 941-882-0966.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.

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