Yours in paddling

Lenora Hammond (59) tells us how she was introduced to dragon boat racing after breast cancer surgery, and the success of the AmaBele Belles – the only breast cancer dragon boat team in South Africa.

Lenora’s story

My breast cancer journey began in 2010. I discovered a lump in my right breast just six months after I donated a kidney to my son. His kidney difficulties were discovered while in utero and his road to better renal health had been at the forefront of our family life for 14 years. 

The transplant was a culmination of many ups and downs, multiple hospital procedures and surgeries, and ultimately ended up with me being a good match. 

I wasn’t prepared for the length of time it would take me to recover from the nephrectomy and needless to say finding a lump in my breast was a shock.

My double mastectomy was followed by chemotherapy. During my recovery, I was told about dragon boating and the benefits of it for breast cancer patients. As soon as I completed my treatment, I joined a dragon boating session and have never looked back since.

History of dragon boat racing

The sport of dragon boat racing has its roots in an ancient folk ritual of contending villagers, which dates back 2 000 years throughout southern China. 

It was modernised in the 70s and has garnered international interest as a competitive sport. A dragon boat can accommodate 20 paddlers and is helmed by a steer person at the back of the boat.

The fact that dragon boating is not  an impact sport makes it so much more accessible to older men and women. There is no impact to the joints as the exercise is performed in a seated position. When done correctly, it is an overall body workout, and regular paddling keeps you fit and in great shape.

Benefits for breast cancer patients

In 1985, Dr Don McKenzie, a sports physician in Vancouver, did a trial on   20 mastectomy patients, to measure the benefits of paddling in the prevention of lymphoedema. 

The patients enjoyed this month-long trial so much they decided to form the first breast cancer dragon boating team, and named themselves Abreast in A Boat. This was the birth of the ‘first pink team’ in Canada. Since then, ‘pink paddling’ has become a worldwide phenomenon, and takes place on all corners of the globe.

Dr McKenzie challenged the thinking that women who had undergone a mastectomy should refrain from strenuous activity. He inspired breast cancer survivors to come together on dragon boat teams because he believed it would benefit their physical health and social well-being. 

His research, published in The Canadian Medical Association Journal,  found “an emerging hypothesis that dragon boating is a vehicle for improving women’s wellness and post-treatment quality of life.” More recent studies have proven the benefits of exercise after breast cancer treatment.

Breast Cancer Participatory Dragon Boating Festival

Every four years, an international Breast Cancer Participatory Dragon Boating Festival is held. In 2018, the host city was beautiful Florence, Italy. There were over 4 500 women in attendance, making this gathering the world’s largest women’s sporting event. Not to mention the world’s largest breast cancer event. The AmaBele Belles (beautiful breast Belles) didn’t take part as they chose to rather partake in a boot camp in Spain.

Victories at bootcamp

To date, there is only one breast cancer dragon boat team in South Africa. The AmaBele Belles were founded in Cape Town, in 2006, by Pam Newby, a veteran dragon boater. The Belles have participated in a variety of breast cancer regattas internationally.

Last year October, 17 members of the Belles travelled to Spain, to participate in a dragon boating boot camp. This was a five-day training camp designed  to hone the technique of paddling in general and racing specifically. 

The skills needed to become a competitive team were sharpened by an expert panel of instructors. The Belles had many opportunities for group practice, individual instruction, data paddle sessions and video analysis. It was an intense time, stretching them all to become better paddlers. Techniques they are familiar with as South Africans were improved upon and refined.

The group went primarily as a breast cancer team, but several members of  the team are supporters. The Belles also participated in the Intercontinental Regatta in the following categories: Ladies, Breast Cancer Groupings, as well as Mixed and Open Teams. 

The Breast Cancer Cup was most coveted, and after the first heat their captain announced that they needed to find two seconds to win the sought-after medal. This they managed to do and on the final day of racing, they won the Breast Cancer Cup. 

But to their astonishment, they ended up having enough points to win the overall cup as well. The Belles were not only representing South Africa, but Africa as a continent. 

Practise is fun

The Belles paddle at least twice a week at the V&A Waterfront and they are fortunate enough to paddle amongst some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. They are doubly blessed being able to paddle all year round, whereas many teams from Europe and North America can only paddle when the lakes or rivers are not frozen. The only thing that may keep them off the water are high gusts of wind. The Belles paddle alongside other mixed dragon boating teams in Cape Town and participate in monthly regattas. 

Please visit the AmaBele Belles Facebook page: AmaBele Belles BCS Dragon Boat Team, if you want more information.

Lenora Hammond is a mother, wife and breast cancer survivor. She serves on the committee for Reach for Recovery, and is part of the AmaBele Belles.

MEET OUR EXPERT – Lenora Hammond

Lenora Hammond is a mother, wife and breast cancer survivor. She serves on the committee for Reach for Recovery, and is part of the AmaBele Belles.