Year Of The Dragon Boats

ACTIVE APPROACH: Up to 20 women, each one a survivor of breast cancer, will make up Ireland's first dragon boat team

ACTIVE APPROACH:Up to 20 women, each one a survivor of breast cancer, will make up Ireland's first dragon boat team

'I'M NOT A particularly sporty person," says Fiona Tiernan. Nevertheless, having survived two bouts of cancer, Tiernan is channelling her considerable energy in one decidedly sporty direction. She is setting up the first women's dragon-boat team in Ireland - the Plurabelle Paddlers - specifically for women going through or recovering from treatment for breast cancer.

Oncology consultants Dr David Fennelly and Dr Jennifer Westrup, top UK coach Julie Doyle and senior physiotherapist Ailish Daly have already lent their support to the project. A fully kitted-out dragon boat costs €13,000 so fundraising is in full swing. Each large, flat canoe fits up to 20 women, side-by-side. Tiernan hopes to recruit three times this many at an open day next Saturday, hosted by Waterways Ireland at its Visitor Centre on Grand Canal Quay, Dublin. This safe, enclosed body of water is where training will eventually take place.

Dragon-boating for women with breast cancer was first pioneered in Canada 12 years ago by Dr Don McKenzie of the University of British Columbia, after research showed that regular physical exercise supports treatment and recovery from surgery. Women from all walks of life were brought together in a support group, which gave them a focus beyond their illness. The idea caught on, and there are now 150 teams worldwide.

Since her second diagnosis, Tiernan has developed lymphoedema, a swelling of the arm that can occur when lymph nodes are removed. She wears a compression sleeve almost daily to keep the swelling in check. Under the circumstances, you'd think rowing - or paddling, as it's correctly termed - is the last thing Tiernan would contemplate. But she realised that exercise could be the key to her sanity and survival. "I decided I was going to have to manage my health in a more strategic way, with a programme of physical fitness to keep myself as well as possible."

Joining a gym was not an option. Dr McKenzie's Canadian dragon-boat team, Abreast in a Boat, had proven that lymphoedema symptoms can be eased by repetitive upper-body exercise. Among the paddlers, no new cases of lymphoedema had occurred, and none of the existing cases had worsened. Dr Fennelly is cautious about claims that any exercise regime can prevent recurrence of cancer, as there are so many different factors affecting each patient. But he is enthusiastic about the fact that dragon-boat teams provide not just an improvement in well-being through exercise, but vital psychological support. "There's no doubt that the support of colleagues is a very important aspect of the way patients deal with this illness. Keeping active also contributes towards recovery in patients with lymphoedema."

However, the standard advice given out to women after surgery can leave them feeling that they should wrap themselves in cotton wool. "There was actually no suggestion of taking any form of exercise," says Tiernan. "But when, eventually, I joined a pilates class, I noticed a gradual improvement in my swollen arm. I could have kicked myself for not starting sooner."

Of course, there are cases where exercise is restricted until a certain amount of healing has taken place. Ailish Daly, senior physiotherapist at the Beacon Clinic in Dublin, is devising a gentle, gradual exercise programme for the team, which will allow all fitness levels to take part. Compression sleeves will be mandatory and women will take to the water only when ready.

Head coach Julie Doyle recently moved with her husband to Ireland from Surrey - a serendipitous stroke of luck for the Plurabelle Paddlers. Doyle has an impressive track record of racing, helming and coaching at the highest levels. A former member of the executive committee of the British Dragon Boat Association, she has travelled all over the world in its name. "Imagine the start line, with six boats lined up and 120 people ready to race. There's a huge adrenalin rush."

Wendy de Corte is chairperson of the Liverpool-based dragon-boat team, Pool of Life. "We were out last week and the sun was setting over the water. It was so peaceful. You can forget all your worries and just chill out." Her team ranges in age from 38 to 71. But the "big C" doesn't have to be the conversation topic. "If no one wants to talk about it, we don't. We are there for a laugh. Equally, if you have any strange aches and pains, you can tell the others rather than worry your own family."

Fiona Tiernan hopes that registration day - which will include talks from the experts - will bring together a good gang of women. "We'll be exercising on the land, paddling at the weekends and just having fun. Eventually, we'll take part in some races." She sees the boats as providing excellent fundraising opportunities, and hopes to channel money towards research into lymphoedema. "I'm also really interested in supporting some Irish-led research on exercise and recovering from cancer," she says. In the longer term, Tiernan hopes to raise awareness of cancer through schools, with kids and mums competing in boats with and against each other.

Is Tiernan - the self-confessed unsporty type - not a little daunted by the task ahead? "I knew it would be a big project, but I thought that if I made it what I 'did', then it would make me actually do it. Does that make sense?"

The dragon-boat open day is on April 17th, 11am-1pm, at Waterways Ireland Visitor Centre, Grand Canal Quay, Dublin 2. Admission is free.

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