Keeping the Dragons at Bay

Breast cancer survivors row for a cure.
Story James Nicholas

He had been an advisor to the king when a misunderstanding between them had resulted in Qu’s banishment to the countryside, where he composed elegant poetry extolling the virtues of honesty and reform in a political state. Local fishermen quickly took to their boats, hoping to save his body from fish and river dragons while banging gongs and drums and throwing packets of rice into the river to scare them away.

The re-enactment of this event has become known as the Dragon Boat Race Festival, taking place annually all over the world. Beginning with the steady low beat of palms against tautly drawn skins, the intensity of the race grows with the splashing of oars as they slice into water. Spray assaults the paddlers as they rush forth into the melee. Soon the cheers of thousands of spectators erupt as the leader crosses the finish line. However, the ornately carved, vibrantly coloured boats now race for hope of a different kind, raising funds for an impressive list of charities, including the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

The Angels Abreast Dragon Boat Team

In January 2000, Evelyn Adshead, a 49-year-old mother of two from Nanaimo, BC, was told she had breast cancer. “I was really in a depressive state,” she said of the months following her diagnosis. “It was like a bolt of lightning. Nobody in my family had had breast cancer before.” She began treatment in Victoria in May of that year, undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy. Eight months later, she joined the Angels Abreast Dragon Boat Team.

Formed in 1999, in the community of Nanaimo, the team consists of breast cancer survivors who provide emotional and physical support to each other by working to raise awareness of the disease. The crew and volunteers work together to raise funds to support the team, organizing fundraising events such as garage sales, beer and burger nights, and auctions. For the team, recreation and fun—not competitiveness—is what matters. “I had a pretty hard time going through cancer,” Adshead confessed. “Dragon boat racing has changed my life big time. I felt that for the first time [since the cancer] I was really useful.” According to Adshead, hope has become a strong motivator for the team, creating unity between the members, a bond that has developed into meaningful relationships. “We don’t have to cave in to cancer,” she said. “We can fight it a little at a time.”

The Goal Of The Angels Abreast

The Angels Abreast team will be hosting the upcoming three-day Dragon Boat Festival this year, with over 40 teams attending. “The goal is to spread the word on how important it is to get healthy and stay healthy,” explained Lydia Niamath, breast cancer survivor and director and co-founder of Angels Abreast. “What we’re fighting for is a cure—at one given point you have so many people together fighting the dragon,” she said, emphasizing the goal of the Nanaimo festival taking place July 11 to 13, 2003. The event promises to involve the whole community with music, children’s entertainment, a dinner, and events for specialized teams.

Celebrating hope and the triumph of the spirit, the Dragon Boat races salute the challenge of overcoming adversity with tradition and community. The events stand vigilant in the face of the most daunting challenges, despite the most overwhelming odds. Today, all across the country, people are teaming up to raise hope and do their part to keep the dragons at bay. The positive energy created from these events has kept the spirit of hope alive. Qu Yuan would definitely be proud.