Dragon Boat Racing versus the Dragon of Breast Cancer

Perry Township resident Elaine Shea is board president of dragon boat team Indy SurviveOars

By Marianne Coil

Elaine Shea says joining the Indy SurviveOars has given her the opportunity to become friends with people she otherwise would never have met. *Photo by Nicole Davis

A seasoned nurse and educator for 42 years, Elaine Shea found her own breast lump, sought help, and knew from the look on the doctor’s face what was coming.

As a nursing director in the old Wishard system, she tapped into a network of local experts for help. In 2008 she agreed to participate in a trial program and took a tumor-shrinking medication for weeks before undergoing surgery. She stayed on the job during her illness.

Shea was between post-surgical radiation treatments, when she ran into a friend at church. Take up dragon boat racing, the friend said, recommending a team of breast cancer survivors.

A dragon boat is slender, 40 feet in length, and decorated with a dragon head. The boat is propelled by 20 paddlers working in unison. Two more people are on the boat. One steers, and the other, called the drummer, leads the synchronization of the paddlers.

Shea visited the team at Geist Reservoir, where practice is held. She learned a bit of paddling technique and went out in a boat with others. “And I was hooked,” she said. 

Alluding to the song ‘Kumbaya” as an expression of spiritual unity, Shea said she’s not a “kumbaya person.” But she will use the occasional “cool” and “super-cool” to describe the jubilation she feels when crossing the finish line with her team, the Indy SurviveOars.

The team held a gala in August at the Indiana State Museum to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Indy SurviveOars. The event yielded over $70,000 after expenses, she said. In the midst of a two-year term as president of the non-profit team’s board, Shea has focused on strategic planning for the group, which bills itself as Indiana’s “first and only” such team for breast cancer patients.   

Indy SurviveOars work out on the water canal in downtown Indianapolis. *Submitted photo

Founded by Kathy Martin Harrison, the team offers hope, inspiration, and camaraderie while focusing on health and physical activity, according to the mission statement.

The exercise from paddling a dragon boat helps to reduce lymphedema in breast cancer survivors, according to research by Dr. Don McKenzie, the Canadian physician who promoted the sport for patients.

During breast cancer surgery (mastectomy or lumpectomy), some lymph nodes in the underarm could be removed. As a result, lymph fluid collects and causes swelling in the arm, and possibly in the hand, fingers, chest or back.

Not all breast cancer patients have lymphedema, Shea said, but training workouts have additional benefits. A survey of the team shows that almost all respondents say their health has improved since they started paddling, she said.

The workouts also help to counter the side effects of medication taken long-term after the acute intervention for breast cancer is complete.

Indy SurviveOars has 85 active members and they usually race against only breast cancer teams, she said. However, the local group has enough backers among friends and family that they can fill a second boat with supporters who compete alongside the breast cancer survivors.     Shea said she was overcome by the spectacle of pink uniforms, boats, and equipment at the first international race she went to in Peterborough in central Ontario, Canada. Competitors from around the world formed a sisterhood of survivors in “more pink than you’ve ever seen.” 

Joining the team has given her the opportunity to become friends with people she otherwise would never have met. The youngest racer is only age 28, and Shea is age 72. She lost two teammates to the illness within the last year. In the past decade, 11 racers have died.

Between her early days in nursing and the time of her diagnosis, treatment of breast cancer shifted to targeted intervention and away from the one-size-fits-all approach, she said, adding that nurse navigators now provide patients with coordinated access to resources. 

Elaine Shea.

The racing season has ended for the year, and the boats were put to bed Oct. 11. But the educational activities of Indy SurviveOars will continue Oct. 20 with a symposium featuring Dr. McKenzie. “He put breast cancer survivors in the boat,” Shea said.

McKenzie is director of Sports Medicine at The University of British Columbia. He will appear at Community Cancer Center North at a meeting sponsored by the cancer center and Indy SurviveOars.

Shea’s year-round fitness routine includes working with a personal trainer, doing yoga, and playing in a golf league. The team also has group workouts with circuit training and rowing machines. The racers are tough enough to have finished second in a 2000-meter race, she said. 

Married to Dan Shea, she lives in Perry Township and enjoys retirement, which includes travel. She just came back from a trip with her sister.   

Shea wants to remain flexible enough to get down on the floor with her grandchildren. At a nursing class reunion she attended, someone said you can’t get back up when you get down.

“That’s the part I don’t equate with,” she said.