Women rowers with paddles

VIDEO: Breast cancer survivors find hope in dragon boat racing

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“Paddles up!” are 57-year-old Kathy Bockman’s new favorite words. They replace two words that used to dominate her life: breast cancer.

After her diagnosis and treatment, she struggled to find something that would bring happiness back into her life. Now almost every warm Saturday, you will find the Garland woman on the water with other survivors bonding over the most unlikely of activities — dragon boat racing.

“Dragon boat racing with this group of women quite literally saved me,” Kathy says.

Breast cancer survivor Kathy Bockman stands on dock with paddle for dragon boat racing.Kathy Bockman conquered breast cancer. Now she’s found new, fun challenges, like dragon boat racing, to help her live her best life after cancer.

A whirlwind cancer diagnosis

“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in fall 2015, it was a whirlwind of tests, treatment option decisions, surgeries, radiation, and then six months of chemotherapy,” Kathy says. “It was just such a shock. I had already had my annual mammogram earlier in the year, so when I felt the lump that fall, I didn’t think it could possibly be cancer.”

After her diagnosis of a very aggressive form of breast cancer (triple negative), Kathy was referred to Jenevieve Hughes, MD, FACS, breast surgeon on the medical staff at Methodist Richardson Medical Center, to have the lump and several sentinel nodes removed.

“Kathy came in ready to conquer cancer,” Dr. Hughes says. “I encouraged her to give some thought about how the first year after treatment would look for her. The survivorship journey is different for every person, trying to make meaning out of the experience she went through. We talked about the healthy ways to go through it.”

Chasing her happiness

Even with the love and support of her husband, Joe, and two adult sons, as well as the distraction of her full-time job as an assistant vice president of accounting with AT&T, Kathy found herself struggling mentally and emotionally.

“During my journey, I was in a very sad and angry place, and I didn’t know why,” she says. “After I completed six months of chemo, I tried a couple of different support groups, both in the community and at the hospital, but they just weren’t for me.”

Shortly after completing chemo, she attended a cancer retreat where there was a table set up, all decorated in pink, showcasing the dragon boat team Dallas United PINK. Curiosity pushed her to go talk to the women at the table. She learned that every one of them was a breast cancer survivor just like her.

On a whim, Kathy signed up.

An eye-opening experience

Dragon boats are essentially extra-long canoes with a dragon head and tail. They hold 20 paddlers; a steerer at the back; and a drummer, or caller, at the front. Festivals and races take place all over the U.S., including two major ones right here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“The women I met at the first practice were welcoming, fun, and energetic,” Kathy says. “They were every age, shape, and background you can imagine, but all had one thing in common — they were survivors.”

The weekend after her first practice, Kathy went to a race. It opened her eyes to a vast community of dragon boaters right here in the Metroplex. Their boats represented organizations, corporations, causes, and even neighborhoods.

women rowers in a group with paddlesSeveral members of Dallas United PINK have had cancer treatment at Methodist Richardson. Learn more about the team here or by emailing pinkinfo@dallasunitedcrew.org.

Just what she needed

“As I got to know more about my teammates, hear their stories, witness their positive outlook, I knew I had found just what I was looking for,” Kathy says.

Being in a boat, paddling alongside women battling the side effects of cancer treatments made her realize that she wasn’t alone in her struggle. Her teammates could relate to the brain fog, exhaustion, and pain, and they understood the challenge of no longer being able to raise your arm above your head. The camaraderie and support invigorated Kathy.

She explains how some of the women have faced — or are still facing — pretty tough diagnoses, but it doesn’t stop them. Their strength, both emotionally and physically, encourages Kathy more than words can express.

“When I was at my lowest, all I had to do was look over at my bench partner, who was in active chemo wearing a hat to protect her bald head from getting sunburned, or help a team member with painful chemo-induced nerve damage get into the boat, and it would renew me,” Kathy says.

The race continues

Now in her second year of dragon boating, Kathy can’t imagine her life without her new passion. She is quick to credit her positive mental, emotional, and physical state to her involvement with the sport and the women in it.

With the next dragon boat race not too far away, Kathy plans to stick with the sport as long as she can. And since the water is her new home away from home, she’s even expressed interest in giving rowing in a crew boat a try next year.

“I’m no longer in that sad, angry place,” Kathy says. “And I hope anyone who finds themselves there will search high and low to find a passion to boost their survivorship.”

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