Elyse DeBelser didn’t fit the criteria, at first.
She had heard about dragon boating for breast cancer survivors.
“And I always thought how cool it sounded but not being a breast cancer survivor, I was like: ‘Oh well, I guess that’s something I won’t be able to do,’” recalls DeBelser.
Then came the diagnosis and her entry to the dragon boat.
“Well, there’s a silver lining,” DeBelser thought to herself. “There’s got to be good parts of everything.”
DeBelser’s breast cancer journey is also a cautionary tale. How you need to be advocate for you own health – and never ignore the nagging feeling that something is wrong.
Her first mammogram result was negative.
“A year later it [the lump] was still there and it was still bothering me,” recounts DeBelser.
Another mammogram was scheduled, and it was negative.
“A year later the lump is still there – and now it’s bigger,” explains DeBelser, who asked for another mammogram. “And luckily there was a locum there as well who was training and she was immediately like: ‘Why haven’t you gotten an ultrasound?’”
A bewildered DeBelser shrugged her shoulders.
She would soon learn why her tumour was elusive to radiologists.
“When women have dense breast tissue … mammograms really aren’t going to show you tumours. And I didn’t know that.”
At the ultrasound appointment, the mood in the room shifted halfway through the exam. The technician stepped out to get the radiologist.
“I said, ’Oh, this is not good,’” recalls DeBelser, who immediately had to go to Lions Gate Hospital for a biopsy of her breast.
The results came back as cancer – Stage One. Still, DeBelser felt “very, very fortunate,” given how much time had passed since she first felt the lump.
DeBelser, who was 65, needed one breast removed for health’s sake, but opted for the full mastectomy.
“For the sake of symmetry and being able to dress myself easily and not having to worry about breast cancer for the rest of my life … I got a double mastectomy,” says DeBelser.
“I guess the spin on my story is: Even if you do get diagnosed – it’s not always the worst case. For me, when I look at it, I think: This is like I got a bad cut – and I’m fine.”
Her focus now is to keep her body as physically healthy as possible. Enter dragon boating.
Even before her mastectomy, DeBelser emailed the Dragon Busters – a team of breast cancer survivors who train in Deep Cove.
“Dragon boating is great because it’s cardiovascular, and it’s a great social environment,” says DeBelser, a brand-new Dragon Buster. “I’m actually probably healthier now than I was a year ago.”
North Shore Dragon Busters was formed in 2008, after originating in 2001 as Abreast in the Cove, under the umbrella of the very first breast cancer dragon boat organization, Abreast in a Boat, which is based in Vancouver.
The team’s goal is to reach out more directly to survivors on the North Shore while continuing to raise breast cancer awareness both locally and throughout the world.
They are propelled by a mandate that all breast cancer survivors have a right to experience the physical and psychological benefits that accrue from participation in this challenging sport.
The North Shore Dragon Busters team has six inaugural members, and five members that have been paddling for 18 years, originally with Abreast in a Boat. Overall, the team is comprised of 28 members and one coach.
The youngest member is 45, and the oldest, 74. But age is just a number in this dragon boat full of fierce women.
The teammates have had different diagnoses, different treatments, and made different choices, but their commonality is their resilience.
The only requirement to join this team of survivors, who are not held back physically, is a positive attitude.
They train twice a week on the water in Deep Cove, on Saturday morning and Wednesday night, starting in the spring. During the off-season, the women work out at Griffins Boxing and Fitness.
The Dragon Busters compete in local, regional and international regattas. Last year, the team went to Florence and placed 16th out of 120 international teams.
Camaraderie is a given with this group, Laurie Hanlon can attest to this.
The Lynn Valley mother had been put through the wringer emotionally before she first stepped foot in the dragon boat.
“I decided it was time to do something for me,” says Hanlon.
Hanlon and her husband were married for nine years before she became pregnant with their first child, after experiencing fertility issues.
But after their daughter celebrated her first birthday, Hanlon was diagnosed with estrogen receptor (ER)-negative breast cancer – an aggressive form that comes with a dire prognosis.
Hanlon was given the works: a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.
During that treatment her body was thrown into early menopause – at 37.
Hanlon asked her doctor if the early menopause would be permanent and was told: maybe it will be, maybe it won’t.
Three months after her cancer treatments ended, Hanlon started feeling some symptoms that she recognized as pregnancy. Her doctor confirmed Hanlon’s suspicion.
Concerned about residual toxins from the cancer treatment, Hanlon made a decision to have no more further testing. She didn’t want to know if the cancer was still lurking because, as a mother, it wouldn’t take precedence.
“I just decided it will be what it will be,” says Hanlon.
Her son, Patrick, was born perfectly healthy, “a hulk” in his mother’s words.
Then, on the eve of Hanlon’s 40th birthday party, she discovered she was pregnant a third time – achieved while in and out of menopause. And again, another healthy baby.
“They are, all three of them for their own reasons, my miracle babies,” says Hanlon.
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I looked at my one-year-old and wondered if I would see her make it to kindergarten – and that was 20 years ago.”
Any survivor can resonate with feelings of mortality that you’re slammed with and can’t escape, says Hanlon.
But the natural beauty of Deep Cove is restorative, and being out on the water seems to have both physical and mental healing properties for the Dragon Busters.
They have seen eagles feeding, moon jellies crowding the boat and, their biggest cheerleader, Sammy the seal, who pops up with a supportive smile almost every time.
“We’re all out there to support each other. How we got here sucks, but we’re doing it,” says Hanlon. “I get a group of women who I know have my back if I need anything ever. I get friendships that I will have for the rest of my life.”
“And you look around and these are all completely just kick-ass woman. And they have all been through it," says DeBelser.
"On a day-to-day basis, we’re just out there to have a good time, get out on the water – and feel completely alive and lucky.”
The Dragon Busters are just at the start of their season and are looking for new members.
Anyone who is interested can contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.