Tammy Mayer, a mother of two who works full time, was 44 years old when she had to put her life on hold in 2014.
Mayer had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. It was a surprise because she only saw her doctor to check out a lump on her shoulder. The doctor decided to do a mammogram as well just to check, even though she was years younger than women getting regular exams.
"They said if I had found it when I should have, it would have been too late," she said. "Thank God for that lump on my shoulder."
During the next few months, Mayer had surgery, lots of chemotherapy and radiation.
"I lost my hair and I was very sick," she said.
"It took me one and a half years to come to the other side. But there was nothing left at the other side. I had no strength."
Mayer is one of the newest members of the Chemo Savvy dragon boat team. She said she knew she needed to do some exercise to gain back her strength. One of the things she remembered was a team of women breast cancer survivors paddling in a dragon boat.
"I’d heard of Chemo Savvy from a friend of my husband, so I phoned her," she said. "She said ‘you’re going.’
"It’s a great way to get strong again and get support."
The Chemo Savvy dragon boat team in Winnipeg is celebrating 20 years of paddling on rivers here and around the world.
Currently, Winnipeg’s team is made up of 70 women aged 38 to 84. They paddle two boats: their original large one — which takes 20 paddlers, a drummer and a person steering — and a smaller one, which fits 10 paddlers.
To help celebrate the team’s milestone, Rochelle Squires, the province’s minister of sport, culture and heritage, will flick a switch to turn the Manitoba Legislative building pink on Feb. 13 at 5 p.m.
Dragon boating by breast cancer survivors actually started in British Columbia through the research of Dr. Don McKenzie. He put together Abreast in a Boat, the first dragon boat team, believing it would help both the physical rehabilitation of the women and have positive psychosocial benefits post-treatment.
Since then, breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams are now paddling in six continents and 20 countries around the world.
But when Mayer went to join Chemo Savvy, they told her she should wait a year to recover further.
"They felt I wasn’t healed enough or strong enough yet," she said. "I’ve now been with them for a year."
Cathy Prusak has been part of the team for 19 years now, not only serving as a coach and board member, but also involved in dragon boating internationally.
She is planning to be part of a dragon boat team at an international race for breast cancer survivors in Italy next year.
Prusak said breast cancer surgery removes the lymph nodes under the arms, which can lead to an increased risk of infection and having to wear special compression garments. She said until McKenzie’s research, women were told to limit the use of their arms as much as they could.
"He thought exercise would help," she said.
"He put 22 breast cancer survivors through exercise (in a dragon boat) using their arms, and it showed none had an increased risk and some with it had an improvement in their symptoms.
"The doctor said the race is won because you got to the start line."
Mary McCormick, Chemo Savvy president, said she joined the team in 2011 a few years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Anyone who says mammograms don’t work I tell it saved my life," she said. "I had a cancer much harder to diagnose — it came out of nowhere."
She said that when she first walked into a training session at a local school during the winter she "was really nervous.
"But they were so welcoming. They are a wonderful group of supportive women."
McCormick said the exercise connected to the dragon boat paddling starts in February, long before the boat is put into the water. They work out both in a gymnasium and pool.
"It makes such a difference," she said.
"When you get in the boat and you haven’t trained, it will suck the life out of you."
The team is in the boat on the Red River during the spring, summer and fall months.
And, each woman in the boat uses a paddle that she decorated herself.
"We put what’s important to us on the paddle," Mayer said, adding that on the front of her paddle it says "my brave girl."
"During my treatment, my husband would leave me notes of encouragement always addressed to my brave girl," she said.
"Also on my paddle are messages from my family, particularly my two children reminding me to be strong and courageous. I absolutely love it."
Sylvie Mathers is a founding member who has been a paddler, steered the boat and coached the team during her two decades as a member.
"It is a double anniversary for me because it has been 22 years now since I was diagnosed," she said.
"It is 20 more years of surviving. I’m one of the lucky ones. Unfortunately, we could fill a full boat with people who have passed away. That’s the sad part, but it’s the nature of the team — we deal with it."
Mathers said she found her lump the day after her birthday and, after undergoing treatment, she became part of a support group.
"They were some people getting together and talking about their experience and what you were going through," she said.
Mathers said, a couple of years later, she jumped at the chance to help found Chemo Savvy.
"We had 50 people at the first meeting and even though we’d never seen a dragon boat before people were interested," she said.
"We’re a support group, but not in the same sense of other support groups. We don’t sit around and talk about their experience. We’ll give you support and listen, but it’s more like we’re there without having to say a word.
"And, I can speak for every women on the team, I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been."
Mathers said Chemo Savvy also changes women’s attitudes about health.
"They take care of their bodies way better," she said.
"I’ve always been a sports person, but this gave me the motivation to get up and do something."
When Prusak was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1996 at age 33, Chemo Savvy didn’t exist. But, by the time Prusak finished her treatment and was part of a support group, it was starting up.
"Two women in the support group said they going dragon boating and they went and joined for the first year," she said.
"I went to see them race and I just knew I wanted to be part of it. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t on the team.
"I literally had missed the boat."
Mayer said she appreciates the longevity of Chemo Savvy from another point of view.
"You look at a member like Sylvie, who is a founding member and is still here, and it gives us all hope," she said.
"It’s the team no one wants to be on — because you have to have had breast cancer — but it’s also the team everyone wants to be on.
"We’re all sisters and part of the same club."
And, as Mathers said, as long as there are cases and survivors of breast cancer, Chemo Savvy will be there for them.
"If we can help a few women along the way, we will have done our job."