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Breast cancer survivors to represent North Shore in international dragon boat race

The team is heading to New Zealand to compete in the international competition

Passengers boarding a flight from Vancouver to Auckland, New Zealand, Wednesday afternoon will have stumbled across a peculiar sight: Rows upon rows of excitable women clad in blue jerseys lining each aisle, their forms merging together to create one, pulsing, sapphire entity.

The ocean-like crowd of 23 was the North Shore Dragon Busters, a boating organization for breast cancer survivors, and the hubbub was the result of uncontrolled excitement for their impending participation in the International Dragon Boat regatta.

The festival, held once every four years by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, sees hundreds of teams from around the world compete.

The women that make up the teams, much like the women who comprise the Dragon Busters, are of varying ages, from their 30s to their 70s, have varying backgrounds, careers, interests, life goals – but there is one unifying element that ties them all together: all have battled breast cancer and come out the other side, and they want to show other women that they can too.

“The team really is just a great group of ladies,” says 62-year-old Lisa Priebe, one of its 34 members. (Not all of the members, she says, were able to make the trip.)

“Being a part of it has been amazing for me, as it has all of the women. Having that one thing in common is so incredibly helpful, we’re all very supportive of each other and we have a lot of laughs, I don’t know where I would be without them.”

Dragon boat team a form of therapy for breast cancer survivors

Priebe is on the cusp of entering her third year with the group, and her twentieth year since receiving her breast cancer diagnosis. The former Holy Trinity Elementary School secretary had suffered a particularly aggressive form of the disease, for which she had to undergo a double mastectomy, six months of chemotherapy, 28 rounds of radiation, and a year of taking targeted therapy treatment Herceptin.

For Priebe, and the countless others who have joined The Dragon Busters since it first formed in 2001, dragon boat paddling has become a form of rehabilitation therapy.

“Now we are here to help people who are going through it now, and to just assure them that there is life after breast cancer. You can have an active life, you can have fun and you will have people there who can support you,” she says.

For those concerned about their lack of skill or sporting prowess Priebe stresses there “is no pressure to be a super athlete” or even know how to paddle, the team has an “amazing” coach and offers “incredible support” from other members. The only requirements are being a breast cancer survivor, and being able to commit to a season.

The upcoming event in New Zealand, to be held for the first time in the southern hemisphere on Cambridge’s Lake Karapiro from April 10, will be Priebe’s first international regatta. She has spent the winter alongside her blue-jerseyed comrades paddling False Creek, with their usual Deep Cove training waters closed for the off-season, training every Saturday “no matter rain, shine or snow.”

She thinks the team is “in for a good shot” and, judging by their previous efforts, she could be right. Currently the Dragon Busters ranks 18th in Canada. During the Ten Years Abreast event, the very first World Championship Dragon Boat Regatta for Breast Cancer Survivors, they earned a silver medal, and at Abreast in Australia in 2007 they placed fourth in the world. The team have travelled everywhere from Ireland to Italy and have had successes locally too, in regattas like the Concord Pacific, the largest regatta in North America, and races in Victoria, Nanaimo and Penticton.

While the team certainly wouldn’t say refuse another medal, Priebe stresses that it isn’t just the winning that they do it for. This year especially there is another driving force. Following the destruction caused by Cyclone Gabrielle, which crashed into New Zealand’s North Island earlier this year, killing 11 people and displacing at least 10,000 more, Priebe and the team are hoping to raise money for the still-recovering communities.

“As a team we thought we should try and raise some money for the people in New Zealand, and we’re going to invite other teams that are participating in the regatta to get involved. There’s usually about 100 to 250 teams from all over the world, so I’m hoping we can get their support and help the country in whatever way we can,” she said.

The Dragon Busters are working on setting up an official fundraising page, which Priebe says will stay up long after the group have returned home.

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

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