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Dragon boats, second chances and silver linings

“Holy crap, I’m not fit enough for this!”

This was Sandie Fletcher’s response to her first paddle out on a dragon boat on Masterton’s Henley Lake with the Wairarapa Dragon Boat Club two and a half years ago.

She was at the tail end of a near decade-long journey battling – and beating – breast cancer.

What she terms her “medical adventure” involved a single mastectomy, 11 rounds of chemo [which had to be stopped because she became so weak], radiation therapy, infusions of cancer treatment drug Herceptin, and a long wait for breast reconstruction surgery.

Unsurprisingly, the experience left her feeling “battered and bruised”.

“You go into cancer treatment, and you are crapping yourself,” she said. “You kind of have to surrender and submit to the fact that this is how it’s going to be.”

“I felt like, ‘I don’t want to go to this [treatment] four times a week. I don’t want you to have five goes at getting the cannula into my arm. I don’t want to sit here all day for chemo. I want to be able to drive my kids to school’.

“It’s super hard. But you have to let go. You have to let people help you. And you spend that whole treatment time letting stuff happen to you – showing up for your appointments, doing what you’re told, doing what you’re told, putting your brave face on.”

Now, nearly three years after her first “have-a-go” at dragon boating, Sandie is a committed member of Cansurvive Dragon Boat Club, a club for breast cancer survivors and supporters, and completed her third Wellington Dragon Boat Festival last month.

A dragon boat is a human-powered watercraft originating from the Pearl River Delta region of China’s southern Guangdong Province. Dragon boaters sit in two rows of 10 and face forward, using paddles to propel the vessel.

Research has shown dragon boating can support the recovery of cancer patients – particularly with lymphedema, which can be a side effect of cancer and cancer treatment.

To get there, Sandie chose to do some groundwork on her fitness.

“I didn’t want to be a lump on the boat,” she said. “So, I walked into Health Fit in Greytown and said, ‘I want to dragon boat and I need to be fit’.

“I was almost crying because I was scared. It took me quite a long time to get out of the car and into the gym.”

Soon, Sandie was working out four days a week. As well as giving her the stamina and physical confidence to restart her gardening work – “which is really good for my soul” – getting gym-fit gave Sandie back “ownership of my body, and the fact that it can do stuff”.

“Because, when you are in your cancer journey, your body really isn’t your own.”

Dragon boating with Cansurvive, and the club’s social team, Canthrive, has built on Sandie’s fitness, boosted her confidence and self-esteem, and even forced her to reevaluate a long-held belief that she wasn’t “a sporty person.”

“Turns out, I just want to go fast!”

Sandie also credits dragon boating with Cansurvive as providing her with a new supportive community of women she loves, admires and respects.

“With dragon boating, you are instantly part of a family. You’ve got that connection,” Sandie said. “We’re all there for the same reason. We’re all getting up and getting going. And for some people, the cancer comes back around again, and then we’re all there to stand alongside them.”

Sandie wants to be a dragon boater for “a long time”, and is currently learning to be a sweep – the team member who stands at the back of the boat steering with an oar.

It’s quite a skill, involving balance, patience, courage and leadership – particularly on “bumpy days”, Sandie said.

“Standing at the back of the boat it’s like being on a trampoline with three kids, and they are all jumping at different times.”

Sandie battled choppy weather during the three-day Wellington Dragon Boat Festival, sweeping for crews in several races.

A highlight was sweeping for a team of high school paddlers from St Catherine’s College, who had only managed to squeeze in three training sessions before race day.

“It was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” Sandie said. “Those St Catherine’s girls were incredible.”

“It was the most perfect day weather-wise, and we just flew down the racecourse. I got off the water and I said, ‘Girls, you’ve just done the most amazing thing, and this has been one of the best days of my life.’

“I walked out of there feeling 10 feet tall.”

Sandie’s medium-term aim is to be an accredited sweep in the Cansurvive crew in time for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission in France in 2026.

Sandie is a long way from the “terribly frightened, mousy woman who just looked petrified” on the shores of Henley Lake a few years ago.

With the support of her family and friends – “I was showered with love” – Sandie has “come out the other side”.

“There’s the ‘before’ this thing happened, then there’s this terrible thing – cancer – in the middle, and then there’s after.

“I feel like this is my second chance. This is my second life. I’m still the same person but I’m stronger and clearer and less scared. There are silver linings.

“I feel kind of unstoppable.” putting your brave face on.”

Now, nearly three years after her first “have-a-go” at dragon boating, Sandie is a committed member of Cansurvive Dragon Boat Club, a club for breast cancer survivors and supporters, and completed her third Wellington Dragon Boat Festival last month.

A dragon boat is a human-powered watercraft originating from the Pearl River Delta region of China’s southern Guangdong Province. Dragon boaters sit in two rows of 10 and face forward, using paddles to propel the vessel.

Research has shown dragon boating can support the recovery of cancer patients – particularly with lymphedema, which can be a side effect of cancer and cancer treatment.

To get there, Sandie chose to do some groundwork on her fitness.

“I didn’t want to be a lump on the boat,” she said. “So, I walked into Health Fit in Greytown and said, ‘I want to dragon boat and I need to be fit’.

“I was almost crying because I was scared. It took me quite a long time to get out of the car and into the gym.”

Soon, Sandie was working out four days a week. Getting gym-fit gave her back “ownership of my body, and the fact that it can do stuff”.

“Because, when you are in your cancer journey, your body really isn’t your own.”

Dragon boating with Cansurvive, and the club’s social team, Canthrive, has built Sandie’s fitness, boosted her confidence and self-esteem, and even forced her to reevaluate a long-held belief that she wasn’t “a sporty person.”

“Turns out, I just want to go fast!”

Sandie also credits dragon boating with Cansurvive as providing her with a new supportive community of women she loves, admires and respects.

“With dragon boating, you are instantly part of a family. You’ve got that connection,” Sandie said. “We’re all getting up and getting going. And for some people, the cancer comes back around again, and then we’re all there to stand alongside them.”

Sandie wants to be a dragon boater for “a long time”, and is currently learning to be a sweep – the team member who stands at the back of the boat steering with an oar.

It’s quite a skill, involving balance, patience, courage and leadership – particularly on “bumpy days”, Sandie said.

“Standing at the back of the boat it’s like being on a trampoline with three kids, and they are all jumping at different times.”

Sandie battled choppy weather during the three-day Wellington Dragon Boat Festival, sweeping for crews in several races.

A highlight was sweeping for a team of high school paddlers from St Catherine’s College, who had only managed to squeeze in three training sessions before race day.

“It was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” Sandie said. “Those St Catherine’s girls were incredible.”

“It was the most perfect day weather-wise, and we just flew down the racecourse. I got off the water and I said, ‘Girls, you’ve just done the most amazing thing, and this has been one of the best days of my life.’

“I walked out of there feeling 10 feet tall.”

Sandie’s medium-term aim is to be an accredited sweep in the Cansurvive crew in time for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission in France in 2026.

Sandie is a long way from the “terribly frightened, mousy woman who just looked petrified” on the shores of Henley Lake a few years ago.

With the support of her family and friends – “I was showered with love” – Sandie has “come out the other side”.

“There’s the ‘before’ this thing happened, then there’s this terrible thing – cancer – in the middle, and then there’s after.

“I feel like this is my second chance. I’m still the same person but I’m stronger and clearer and less scared. There are silver linings.

“I feel kind of unstoppable.”

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