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Breast cancer survivors battle, paddle together
Amy Glass, Linda Evans, Phyllis Parker and Lois Hall of Dragon Boat Atlanta wait their turn to race Sept. 10, during the Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Lake Lanier Olympic Park in Gainesville. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Dragon Boat Atlanta
Practices: 1:30 p.m. Sundays
Where: Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, 3105 Clarks Bridge Road, Gainesville
Phone number: 678-956-0062 after 11 a.m. to confirm practice

Still in stitches, Dianne Bryant drove to Lake Lanier in June 2012 and climbed aboard a dragon boat.

Seated inside were women who shared two things in common: All were breast cancer survivors and all were paddling to raise awareness and support for the cause.

The group is Dragon Boat Atlanta, a breast cancer awareness team composed of survivors and supporters of the disease. Last month, the women from across Georgia participated in the 2016 Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival at Lake Lanier Olympic Park in Gainesville.

“Nobody willingly joins, but once you’re a part of it, it’s such a sisterhood,” crew member Kathy Cunningham said. “That’s our on-the-water support group.”

Bryant never thought she would have to join the group. As a fitness instructor, she said she believed she made all the right moves to steer clear of the disease. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2012.

“I did all the right things, ate all the broccoli, the whole nine yards,” she said. “No breast cancer in my family. It’s just kind of the luck of the draw.”

While she was recuperating, Bryant used the “baby paddle” to help her learn the moves with less physical exertion.

“It’s basically a handle that goes all the way with no resistance in the water, and it allows people to come who still are compromised and can learn,” she said. “It’s kind of like playing air guitar.”

The dragon boat team was first organized in 2004 as a replica of a Charleston, S.C., unit, said Linda Evans, one of the founding members.

“It was a new sport,” said the woman who was first diagnosed in 1998 but experienced a recurrence three years ago. “It was new to us, and we were all survivors. We were ready to just try anything to let people know that we could do what we’re supposed to do.”

For Cunningham, the team represented a “silver lining to that dreaded diagnosis.”

Wanting to get physically active again, Cunningham became involved with the team in 2005. She said with every stroke she beats back the disease.

“It’s very satisfying for me that I’m doing the community awareness and showing that there is life after breast cancer,” Cunningham said. “It’s not a death sentence. It’s not something to be hushed and talked about in low tones.”

The team raises awareness by competing at other dragon boat events. Competitions on Lake Lanier and other venues draw ex-military members, college students and the familiar ladies in pink, to name a few.

The time on the water gives the dragon boat members a rush irrespective of winning.

“It’s a thrill when you are coming across that finish line, whether you are first or last. We have a saying, ‘We’re first in our lane’,” Evans said.

Finishing the race makes the members of the team feel powerful, Bryant said.

“I thought my life was over when I got that diagnosis, and (dragon boat racing) brought me back to life,” Cunningham said.

While their cause unites them, the dragon boat members don’t dwell on their maladies, Cunningham said. The focus is supporting one another, especially as family members face the same diagnosis, Evans said.

“As we’ve brought new team members on, we are a support group for each other,” Evans said, adding two members have daughters battling breast cancer.

Participating in the local Dragon Boat Atlanta also allows members to compete with other groups such as the International Pink Sisters around the globe, Bryant said.

The Dragon Boat Atlanta team hopes to compete in 2018 at the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission’s festival in Florence, Italy.

While eating breakfast in Puerto Rico before an international event, Bryant said she had an epiphany.

“If I had never had breast cancer, I wouldn’t be here ... It has thrown me in with these wonderful, strong, beautifully spirited women that I would have never gotten to know had I not had breast cancer,” she said.