Dragon boating: the sport of breast cancer survivors

Natashya Gutierrez

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Doris Nuval, far right, with other breast cancer survivors.

MANILA, Philippines – Doris Nuval is a cheerful, bubbly 59-year-old woman with infectious energy.

It is an hour past sunrise. She is dripping with sweat after a tough workout – after paddling through the waters of Manila Bay to be precise. Her calf muscles and biceps are toned, fit. She is an athlete, a member of the Manila Dragons Dragonboat Rowing Team.

She is also a breast cancer survivor.

Nuval has been cancer-free since 2005, and started paddling after she heard about dragon boating through an E-Group. She decided to try it out.

“I never had even heard of the sport,” she admits.

The unknown sport to her soon became the trigger that changed her lifestyle.

“Now I just have a social drink and I have to be home by 10pm [for training the next day],” she says. “In dragon boating you need strength and endurance. For strength I do weight training and for endurance I run, so it is every day of the week that I get up early.”

Dragon boating, Nuval explains, is a popular sport among those who have had a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, because the removal of lymph nodes affects the circulation of whichever side the lump or the breast was removed. Paddling increases the circulation.

For this reason, countries like the USA, Australia and Canada have dragon boats filled solely with breast cancer survivors. Nuval estimates that there are about 160 breast cancer teams worldwide, and developed countries easily have 20 teams made up of breast cancer survivors. Nuval hopes to see at least one Philippine team in the future.

“Unfortunately, the Philippines has never [had one],” she says. “I’ve been trying to recruit since I started this sport three years ago…I’ve never been able to put together a team.”

Breast cancer survivors paddle for the first time.

Paddling to celebrate life

Nuval’s teammates in the Manila Dragons have helped her take one step closer to that dream.

In line with Breast Cancer Awareness Month this October, the Manila Dragons hosted an event early Sunday morning to introduce the sport to breast cancer survivors. The event, titled, “Manila Dragons is Breast Aware for Early Detection and Prevention,” aimed to recruit breast cancer survivors in the Philippines, in hopes that the country may one day send a delegation to international competitions specifically for breast cancer survivors.

The event was also a way for the team to honor their teammates: five breast cancer survivors who are active paddlers for the Manila Dragons.

The program started with a short explanation and rowing demonstration for the 20 breast cancer survivors who came to participate, and who then proceeded to row on Manila Bay.They closed the event by throwing pink roses into the waters of the Bay to honor cancer victims who went before them. Present were members of various breast cancer support and advocacy groups such as I Can Share, Bosom Buddies, USTH Can Share, Carewell Community, and Bessy Legarda I Can Serve Foundation.

Breast cancer survivor Kara Magsanoc, found her first time paddling experience memorable.

“It was fun. What made it unforgettable was I was doing it with other breast cancer survivors,” she says. She also expressed optimism that the country will be able to form a delegation one day.

“Anything is possible. It may not come right away but it will come,” Magsanoc says, a lesson she learned from battling breast cancer. “We just don’t know when.”

Breast cancer survivors paddling on Manila Bay.

Breast cancer survivors paddle for the first time.

Everyone welcome

The Manila Dragons take pride in being the only dragon boat team in the nation with breast cancer survivors as members. Two of those survivors helped the team to an impressive 5th place overall finish out of 96 teams in the King of the World International Dragon Boat Invitational Championship from Hong Kong last October 2.

But breast cancer survivors are only one of many types of the team’s paddlers.

The Manila Dragons is made up of paddlers with ages ranging from 19 to 60. They come from various professions and social classes. And their doors, or more appropriately, boats, are open to anyone interested in trying out the sport.

While dragon boating has clear advantages for breast cancer survivors, the sport is teeming with benefits for everyone. It is a great form of exercise, a good source of friendship and camaraderie given the necessity of teamwork and synchrony of the sport, and for many, a stress reliever due to the peaceful experience of paddling through the still waters of Manila Bay at dawn.

The sport has received media coverage recently due to the controversy behind the Philippine Dragon Boat Team that won in Tampa, Florida a few months back, but the Manila Dragons is hoping for more than talk about the sport. They encourage those who are interested to discover the magic of dragon boating not just as a spectator but as a paddler.

“The media attention to it had made it very popular, popular in terms of people talking about it,” says Anna Liese Roque, a member of the team. “I would like it to be popular in terms of people actually getting in and paddling.” 

Follow the author on Twitter: @natashya_g

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.