University Park

Thousands of breast-cancer survivors kick off three-day Dragon Boat Festival

UNIVERSITY PARK -- The time is now to put an end to breast cancer, Dr. Susan Love told the more than 2,500 paddlers at the opening ceremonies of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival Friday.

"We can be the generation that ends breast cancer," said Love, who is the chief visionary officer of the Dr. Susan Love Research Foundation. "It doesn't have to always be with us. We can end it. These things are do-able. We can do this for breast cancer. We just need to have the will."

Thousands of breast-cancer survivors and women and men still battling the disease gathered -- all wearing the same neon pink T-shirt at Nathan Benderson Park on Friday to kick off the three-day Dragon Boat Festival.

Love said breast-cancer awareness has been achieved as evidenced by the NFL teams wearing pink in support of finding a cure.

"The goal isn't awareness anymore," she said. "Really the focus now is not only finding a cure but finding the cause and solving it. Let's just get rid of the disease once and for all. That has to be the rally cry."

This is the first year the festival is being held in the United States and more than 10 nations, including Australia, Singapore, Italy, United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentina and Canada have dragon-boat teams participating. The first heat of the races are set to begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Benderson Park and will continue Sunday.

Toward the start of Friday's opening ceremony, the youngest paddler from each country carried the country's flag onto the stage as the country's national anthem played.

Kim Bonomo, the festival's president and co-chair, thanked the original dragon boat team, Abreast In A Boat, for "having the courage and gratitude for getting this movement started."

"Through the science, (the doctors) have saved our lives, but it is dragon boating that's saved our spirit," said Bonomo, who is captain of the Miami team, Save Our Sisters.

Irene Chui flew with nine other women for more than 24 hours from Singapore to be in Sarasota for the festival. Chui, who has been paddling for nine years, is the captain of the Singapore team, BCF Paddlers in the Pink.

"Cancer has really brought us physically strong," Chui said, adding that paddling has allowed her to regain her energy after battling cancer. "It's just a new journey all together."

For Chui, like many of the participants this weekend, it is her first time in Florida and the United States. The Singapore brought along a woman who is the team's "pink paparazzi" and will document the weekend's events as a memory for the team.

"I'm so proud to represent Singapore and BCF Paddlers in the Pink," she said. "We will have good memories to bring back from sunshine Florida and I couldn't ask for more really. Beautiful weather and beautiful people."

While paddlers have traveled from all over the world to participate this weekend, Adriana Bartoli said she wants to see the dragon boating make its way to her home country of Argentina.

"I lost three friends to breast cancer in Argentina," said Bartoli, who is working to get dragon boats in South America. "They lived in solitude. There were alone. When I was diagnosed, I said, 'I don't want to be like that.' There are so many ladies that would like to do this."

The Dragon Boat Festival is the first major international event to be held at Nathan Benderson Park and Paul Blackketter, president of the Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, the nonprofit that runs the park, has been working toward making this event a reality at the park for the past few years.

"It's inspiring; recharging; and it's great to know that all the hard work we put into it was meant to be," Blackketter said. "This is the beginning of many, many great things to come of this scale and greater."

In addition to the thousands of female breast-cancer survivors at Benderson Park, Herb Wagner, who has previously paddled for the Canadian national team, said he is coming to raise awareness for breast cancer in men.

"Our survival rate is much lower," said Wagner, who runs A Man's Pink, a website dedicated to providing information about Male Breast Cancer. "Awareness increases early detection. Early detection saves lives."

Wagner said there is often a negative stigma surrounding male breast cancer.

"Now, more and more, men are becoming confident enough to speak about it," he said. "All of these women (at the Dragon Boat Festival) realize that it's also a men's disease. They are very important in helping us promote awareness."

Claire Aronson, University Parkway/Sarasota reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.