Joy Vienot knows the benefits of regular exercise. They add up to a trip to Italy with 3,000 girlfriends for some dragon boat racing and days of "wine and gelato."
The Bridgewater nurse is one of the breast cancer survivors group, Nova Scotia Bosom Buddies, dragon boat racing on the Arno River July 7th and 8th, in the 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddler's Commission (IBCPC) Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Florence.
Other Maritimes teams are also there from New Glasgow, Saint John, and Moncton. Held every four years, the first IBCPC was in Sarasota, Florida, in 2014.
The city of renaissance architectural treasures, and (it must be mentioned) a shopping paradise of fashion boutiques, has turned pink for the international event drawing about 136 teams from about 17 countries. Each dragon boat has a team of 20 paddlers, four extras and several supporters.
Vienot, 56, and Mieke Martin, 81, of Blandford have been meeting at Exit 7 on Highway 103 for the drive together to Lake Banook in Dartmouth three times a week since early May to practice with the rest of the Bosom Buddies, most of whom are from Halifax-Dartmouth.
"We go out in all weather," said paddler Lori Arnold of Halifax, who joined the Buddies three years ago. The team has been preparing for Florence for since 2016. The Florence races go four rounds of 500 meters, two rounds each day.
"It's pretty exciting," Martin said. A dragon boat paddler since the Bosom Buddies inception in 1998 and one of the oldest participants, Martin will be carrying the Canadian flag in the parade during the festival in Florence. " I have been to many festivals in Canada, also to the U.S., to the international festival in Sarasota, Australia. I went to New Zealand with Canadians Abreast, a team formed from paddlers all over Canada."
Dragon boat racing is "a huge commitment," Vienot said, and not just personally. Fellow nurses at Riverview Enhanced Living facility for people with special needs in Bridgewater "switched and traded shifts so I could go the practices," Vienot said in a telephone interview.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, Vienot said "I was having a mammogram "feeling frightened" when she noticed a poster on the wall with the Nova Scotia Bosom Buddies mission statement.
"I thought, that's for me, and I joined a week or two after my surgery." The Buddies live their message, Vienot said. Breast cancer can affect anyone, young or old, but "there is life after breast cancer."
Celebrating five years of being cancer free, "I'm living life to the fullest all the way," Vienot said, "and drinking wine and eating gelato every day I'm in Italy." After the races many of the paddlers are heading to Venice for a few days of R&R, she said.
Dragon boat racing, which dates back to 4th Century BC China, was introduced to Canada at Vancouver Expo '86. Since then it has become North America's fastest-growing adult team sport and is second-most in the world after soccer.
In 1995, Dr. Don McKenzie, a sports medicine physician at the University of British Columbia, started researching rehabilitation following diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Medical opinion at the time was that patients should avoid strenuous exercise to prevent lymphoedema or swelling of the arm where lymph nodes had been removed.
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, and stimulate the immune system.
To test his theories he formed a dragon boat team, Abreast in a Boat, in Vancouver in February 1996. The only criteria for joining was a history of breast cancer: age, athletic ability and paddling experience were not considered.
Paddling is a strenuous, repetitive upper body activity. It is non-weight bearing and therefore has 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.
McKenzie, a longtime dragon boat and kayaking enthusiast himself, is in Florence for the festival.