Dragon boat crew members paddle past breast cancer

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You could never tell from the cheerfulness of the women, the diversity in their ages and backgrounds, and the vigor with which they paddle that they all are coping with the same serious malady.

Pink Steel is one of four crews fielded by the Steel City Dragons, one of the two dragon boat teams in Pittsburgh. But it is a very special crew, composed as it is of breast cancer survivors.

Dragon boat racing is one of the world's oldest sports, having originated in China about 2,400 years ago. A worldwide revival began about 25 years ago, and there are now tens of thousands of participants in about 60 countries.

A dragon boat is long, slim, colorfully painted, pointed like a canoe at both bow and stern, and paddled like a canoe, with a dragon's head. (The original purpose of the dragon's head was to scare away evil spirits.) A typical dragon boat consists of 20 paddlers, a drummer who beats out cadence for the paddlers on a large ceremonial drum and a helmsman who holds the tiller at the rear of the boat.

Dragon boating came to Pittsburgh in 2002, when the Urban Redevelopment Authority bought one dragon boat each for the Three Rivers Rowing Association and for the Steel City Dragons, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Pittsburgh's sister city relationship with Wuhan, China.

Lynne Franks-Meinert, 39, a founder and the president of the Steel City Dragons, was inspired to start a breast cancer survivor team after her friend, Carol Raber, died of breast cancer in 2005.

Some breast cancer survivors suffer from lymphedema, a swelling in the arms caused by a buildup of lymphatic fluid in the soft tissues of the body after surgery or radiation treatments. Underarm lymph nodes near the breast are part of the system that maintains the body's fluid balance and fights infections.

For many years physicians feared that exercise could increase the likelihood of developing lymphedema among people at risk. But a study by a Canadian physician, Dr. Don McKenzie of the University of British Columbia, showed that exercise doesn't increase the risk of a breast cancer survivor getting the condition. The first dragon boat team composed of breast cancer survivors was formed by Dr. McKenzie at UBC in 1996.

Ms. Franks-Meinert and some friends at Steel City Dragons decided in 2005 to form here a dragon boat crew of breast cancer survivors. They passed out information cards at breast cancer support group meetings and doctors' offices. Pink Steel first competed in 2006. The team currently has 26 members. They gather for practice at Fox Chapel Marine on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings.

"These women show incredible will in overcoming the physical limitations due to the residual effects of their breast cancer treatment," Ms. Franks-Meinert said. "They no longer think of themselves as just survivors."

The exercise and the camaraderie have improved the quality of their lives, Pink Steel crew members say.

"It's the support of everybody," said Peggy Frechione, 58, of Plum, a cancer survivor for 29 years. "We're all in the same boat, literally."

"It's finding something good out of something bad," said Bebe Szalais, 71, of Springdale, a cancer survivor for 21/2 years. "We don't even think about our disease any more. We just have fun."

"This is the most powerful thing I have done since I was diagnosed," said Linda DeVos, 55, of Wilkinsburg, a cancer survivor for 15 years.

Kathy Hecker, 58, of Ross, a cancer survivor for four years, said "I had never joined any kind of support group because I don't want to talk about it. But this has been perfect."

"We don't talk about it," agreed Darlene Westfall, 53, of Penn Hills, a cancer survivor for 11 years. "It's never discussed because we are so concentrating on form and speed."

"It's fun to be thought of as an athlete instead of as a patient," said Laurie Montgomery, 46, of Murrysville.

Pink Steel plans to compete in a number of dragon boat races here and throughout the country this summer and fall. The most important of these will be in Windsor, Ontario July 18-20 for the FDJ International Dragon Boats for the Cure festival, where teams of breast cancer survivors from all over North America will compete. The event's sponsor, French Dressing Jeanswear, has contributed more than $1.5 million (Canadian) to breast cancer research in Canada and the United States.

The dragon boat season runs until November. For more information about Pink Steel, contact Lynne Franks-Meinert at 412-377-3063.

Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.


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