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In 1995 Dr Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia, started researching the issue of rehabilitation following diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Current opinion had prevailed that the avoidance of strenuous exercise was necessary to prevent lymphoedema or swelling of the arm where lymph nodes had been removed. Dr McKenzie believed that upper body exercise has a role in recovery from breast cancer and lymphoedema because it can improve range of motion and reverse muscle atrophy, activate skeletal muscle (which may help pump lymph), and stimulate the immune system.

To test his theories he formed a dragon boat team Abreast in a Boatin Vancouver in February 1996. The only criteria for joining was a history of breast cancer: age, athletic ability and paddling experience were not considered.​

Dragon boating was chosen for several reasons. It is a strenuous, repetitive upper body activity. It is non-weight bearing and therefore associated with a lower risk of injury than weight dependant activities such as running. It uses predominantly upper extremity and trunk muscles, and the improvement in strength has a carry-over effect to day-to-day activity. The training intensity can be varied simply by pulling harder.

That first team had their first look at a dragon boat in April, trained twice weekly on the water through April, May and June, and then competed in their first race at the Vancouver Festival in late June 1996. The findings were compelling. The paddlers showed a marked improvement in both physical and mental health. Several women reported improved range of motion of their shoulders and there were no cases of lymphoedema. To other people with breast cancer, the women paddlers have become role models, giving inspiration to lead full and active lives.

Today there are more than 224 breast cancer dragon boating teams in 24 countries worldwide, all reaching out to other women and offering them a message of hope and support. 

Every four years the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission (IBCPC) brings teams from around the world together for races, meetings, and camaraderie. The 2018 congress was in Florence, Italy.

For a list of all teams registered with the IBCPC, click here

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