Breast cancer survivors: You know you are OK all paddling together

Breast cancer survivors from Cork Dragons will be among the 27 Wild Atlantic Warriors from Ireland heading to the ‘World Cup’ of Dragon Boat Racing in Italy this weekend. CHRIS DUNNE catches up with some of those taking part to talk about friendships forged, putting fun back into their lives, and surrounding themselves with positive people
Breast cancer survivors: You know you are OK all paddling together
The Wild Atlantic Warriors in training on the River Lee Picture: Eddie O'Hare

A BRIGHT, bustling morning on Leeside sees members of Cork Dragons setting the quays alight during their last training session before the Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, which takes place this weekend, July 6 to 8.

The Dragons are all breast cancer survivors. The 10-strong Cork team and four supporters are part of 27 Wild Atlantic Warriors heading to the event which takes place every four years.

The remainder of the WAW crew hail from Limerick, Waterford, Mayo and Donegal.

“Come join us,” says Caroline Warren, a true warrior who conquered breast cancer and then leukaemia, after undergoing gruelling treatment for both.

Caroline, from Bandon, is one of the ‘warriors’ from Cork Dragon Boat members heading to Florence — 10 breast cancer survivors and four supporters from the Cork group will travel to the Italian city.

“You could waste your whole life thinking about cancer,” says Caroline. “Then you waste your whole life. I can’t find a cure for cancer, but I can fight back and give cancer the two fingers. For us Dragons, it is all about positivity, camaraderie and having fun.”

Members of the Wild Atlantic Warriors from left, Helen McCauley, Hilda Collins, Linda Cronin, Martha Torpey, Val Elliff, Mark O'Connor, Caroline Warren, Tracy Hyde and Rachel SlyePicture: Eddie O'Hare
Members of the Wild Atlantic Warriors from left, Helen McCauley, Hilda Collins, Linda Cronin, Martha Torpey, Val Elliff, Mark O'Connor, Caroline Warren, Tracy Hyde and Rachel SlyePicture: Eddie O'Hare

There are a few tips available on board too.

“Where else can you find out where to get your eyebrows tattooed?” says Caroline, laughing.

The ripple effect is contagious and Wild Atlantic Warrior coach, Mark O’Connor, is telling me to dip my toes in the water.

Few escape the shadow of cancer, but the warriors slay it good and proper when they paddle their own canoe.

“I keep looking forward,” says Mark, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, and who underwent a mastectomy, seven months of chemotherapy and 25 radiotherapy sessions.

“Looking back is only for parking cars!” he adds.

The crew are fired up, ready to ignite the River Arno in Florence when they paddle together, full steam ahead; where everybody gets a medal; where everybody is a winner.

“The buzz is fantastic, says Mark, from Togher. “It is our World Cup.”

A total of 129 teams from 17 countries are taking part in the non-competitive participatory event.

Jerry Healy, general manager Carrigaline Court hotel sponsors with members of the Wild Atlantic WarriorsPicture: Eddie O'Hare
Jerry Healy, general manager Carrigaline Court hotel sponsors with members of the Wild Atlantic WarriorsPicture: Eddie O'Hare

Dragon boating gave Mark the kick-off he needed after his cancer journey.

“It gets rid of all the problems,” he says. “It smooths the water and serves as our very own session therapy.”

Where did Mark first hear about Cork Dragons?

“It was suggested to me at Arc House,” he says. “I went along to an open day in 2012 and after that I got my own dragon boat team together and we flourished.”

Mark says the paddling exercise helps tackle lymphedema, a build up of fluid that may occur in affected limbs.

“And paddling really helps with upper body strength,” he adds.

Mark is a qualified helmsman and coach. What does a helmsman do?

“He or she does the chanting to keep the paddling rhythm in unison,” says Mark. “We do a lot of giving out too!”

All the members are beaming with positivity, courtesy of the fresh air and the exciting endorphins. Donegal, Waterford, Mayo and Limerick accents belonging to the 27-strong Wild Atlantic Warrior contingent mingle merrily with the Cork twang.

“Dragon boating has given me a new lease of life,” says Martha Torpey, from Blackrock. “I’ve made fantastic friends. Out on the water, your mind wanders; you’re in your own zone. Paddling strengthens all your muscles after breast cancer. Florence will be my first major trip away. I can’t wait.”

Hilda CollinsPicture: Eddie O'Hare
Hilda CollinsPicture: Eddie O'Hare

Neither can fellow crew members Linda Cronin, Tracey Hyde, Val Eiliffe, Hilda Collins, Avril Barry, or Rachel Slye, who are sharing a welcome cuppa with me before they show me how to paddle our own canoe.

“I was hooked once I went under the first bridge!” says Linda Cronin, from Carrigaline, who heard about the Dragons in Arc House.

“I was terrified of the water. Now, I’ve learned to swim.”

The upbeat, positive ladies have all been on another voyage, one that saw them sail into choppy waters before reaching a safe harbour.

“I saw the flyer about dragon boating as well at Arc House,” says Tracey Hyde, from Glanmire. “I liked kayaking, so dragon boating appealed to me. It is just wonderful that so much good came out of a bad thing.”

Val Eiliffe, from Crosshaven, knows that being surrounded by positive people is empowering.

“A good attitude and being surrounded by positive people is key,” she says. “That’s how I got through my breast cancer diagnosis which came out of the blue in 2015. I don’t feel sorry for myself. Here, we shut out any sob stories and we get on the right track.”

Did Val hear about the Cork Dragons at Arc House too?

“I spotted the poster on the back of the door in a cubicle in the ladies’ toilet! I said there and then, I want to do that! I have found the whole experience phenomenal,” she says.

Sharon McDonnell, drummer with members of the Wild Atlantic Warriors in training on the River Lee Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Sharon McDonnell, drummer with members of the Wild Atlantic Warriors in training on the River Lee Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“I look forward to the training sessions every Tuesday evening. I laugh and smile all the time. What we can achieve together as a team is fantastic.

“No matter how tired or how stressed you may feel, once you get paddling; the fun starts.”

It is a definite ‘Aye Aye!’ from the others who are in total agreement with Val.

“You know, you don’t take life as seriously,” says Hilda Collins, from Cloyne, speaking about the aftermath of breast cancer.

“I met the girls here at the boardwalk first. Straight away, I felt like I was in a new little family. The girls are great role models.

“We are all survivors together. We know what each other has gone through.

Rachel Slye
Rachel Slye

“Everybody is open to swapping tips and information going forward regarding check-ups and treatments. Now, I take life in short blocks. Nobody knows what’s around the corner. You know fear at the start and you know joy when you conquer,” said Hilda.

Rachel, from Guileen, is on the look-out for other missions. Apart from being an active crew member, she is also a recruitment officer.

“Yes, we are in the process of putting together a calendar to raise funds, featuring our crew members,” she says.

Has she many candidates?

“The girls are very enthusiastic,” she says, keeping her cards close to her chest.

“We have six months of the calendar photographs done and we are completing the calendar shoot in the autumn.”

The ladies went above and beyond the call of duty.

“All the ladies who had breast cancer went outside their comfort zones to appear in the calendar,” says Rachel.

“Some of the girls were nervous at first. But then they got into it, and everybody really enjoyed it. You know that you’re OK when we all paddle together.”

The Cork Dragons are seeking a haven.

“We are in dire need of a boat-house or a building to house our boats and our equipment,” says Rachel.

“The Harbour Commissioners have always been very good to us, but now that the Port of Cork has been sold, we don’t have a club-house or a base. We could really do with one.”

Avril Barry
Avril Barry

The Cork Dragons value their supporters.

“My pal, Helen Mccauley, and I did coastal rowing together,” says Avril Barry, from Cobh.

“We are best friends and I’m really looking forward to travelling to Florence and supporting Helen and the team.”

Helen and Avril are joint captains of the Cork Dragons.

“We are always competitive and shout at each other when we’re both at the helm!”

The Cork Dragons give a big shout out to their sponsor Jerry Healy, General Manager of the Carrigaline Court Hotel.

“The team are very dedicated and committed given what they have all gone through,” says Jerry.

“I feel proud to support people like that. I’ve lost family members to cancer and I know everybody can associate with those affected by cancer.” Jerry is a little in awe of the might of the Dragons.

“Their energy is just amazing,” he says. “The Dragons are great role models and you may be sure they’ll make their name in Florence.”

Cork Dragons was established in 2012. The 2018 IBCPC, Participating Dragon Boat Festival takes place in Florence, Italy, from July 6 to 8.

ARC House is a safe haven for people with cancer and their families where you can find information practical help and free services across Cork city and county.

Cork ARC support house, Cliffdale, 5, O’Donovan Rossa Road. To contact Cork City Arc, phone 021-4276688, Youghal on 024-91654 and Bantry on 027-53891.

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