Three times a week, it’s possible to see a group of Indianapolis-area cancer survivors paddling a boat on Geist Reservoir. Therapeutic? Sure. But it’s more than that.
The Indy SurviveOars, mostly breast cancer survivors — and all of them dragon boat paddlers — are getting ready for an April 10-16 competition in New Zealand.
“The International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission is held every four years, similar to the Olympics,” team President Elizabeth Anderson said. “This year it will be held in Cambridge, New Zealand, at the Mighty River Domain.”
Eighty-one survivor teams and 24 supporter teams are expected to compete, with 2,275 athletes representing 30 countries.
“Our team will proudly represent the state of Indiana, along with other USA teams,” Anderson said.
Indy SurviveOars are Indiana’s first dragon boat team. It was organized as a way to help and support breast cancer survivors.
“Our mission, through the sport of dragon boat racing, offers hope, inspiration and camaraderie to breast cancer survivors while focusing on healthy and physical activity,” Anderson said.
Dragon boat paddling helps with the women’s physical recovery.
“It’s also therapeutic,” Anderson said. “It shows the women they have teammates who have been where they’ve been.”
Indy Surviveoars launched its first boats in 2007. Since then, hundreds of breast-cancer survivors and supporters have paddled with them. Currently, the team has 70 paddlers, ranging in age from 33 to 76.
“The ladies are in various stages of treatment or else they’re longtime survivors, forming lifelong friendships,” Anderson said. “We are proud to represent the racing capital of the world as we race at home and overseas.”
A few team members are not survivers but supporters – or “SupporOars”—of the cause. Fishers resident Kristi Dickson, who eventually contracted breast cancer herself, started as a supporter.
“I Joined for my patients,” said Dickson, who is a primary care physician. “I’ve cared for many breast cancer survivors through the years, so I joined to support them. We practice three days a week on Geist Reservoir, with a goal of participating in three to four races each season.”
Althought the training is rigorous, team members say it’s rewarding. Anderson said many of her best memories have been from time spent with the team.
Anderson said the team’s race in Alexandria, Ky., in September of last year was especially memorable. The team entered two boats and placed first and second amongst the breast cancer teams
“My first race was one of my most memorable experiences,” Anderson said. “It was shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were in chicago. I still remember the feeling of adrenaline and excitement and camaraderie that we felt while paddling to the start line together.
“Any time you pass the finish line, you feel like a champion, like you can do anything.”
SupportOar becomes a SurviveOar
Most members of the SurviveOars joined the team as part of their recovery from breast cancer. A few, like 57-year-old Fishers resident Dr. Kristi Dickson, joined to support the cause — and only afterward found themselves as breast cancer survivors.
When did you join the Indy SurviveOars?
I joined the team in 2013 as a “SupportOar.” Several of my patients were on the team and I wanted to show my support for them. I loved their mission and wanted to be part of it. After one race, I was hooked.
How long until you yourself were diagnosed with cancer?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, after I’d been paddling with the team for seven seasons.
How was it discovered?
The cancer was found on a routine mammogram. Recovery from my first surgery took place during the first few weeks of the pandemic. My second surgery was postponed by several months due to the pandemic.
What is your status with the cancer today?
I’m in remission. Treatment consisted of a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Fortunately, I didn’t need chemotherapy. Also, I now take daily hormone blocking medication to reduce my risk of recurrence.
Was your team supportive of you when you were diagnosed?
Oh, yes! We were in off-season training at the time. Many of my teammates reached out to me to offer support and recommend their doctors. Because of them, I was able to enter treatment without fear.
Do you plan to compete in New Zealand with the team?
I will travel with them to New Zealand for the April race. I was asked to be an assistant coach, so I will be drumming one of our races in New Zealand as a coach in front of the boat. I will be paddling in the other races.