One of the most beautiful cities in the world is playing host to an extraordinary gathering of cancer survivors. Thousands of women who have beaten breast cancer are in Florence right now to take part in Dragon Boat races on the river Arno. Florence is a place where many people would say the Renaissance was born, it’s also the home of the ancient sport of calcio storico – which is the predecessor to soccer.
Dragon boating has been around for more than 2,000 years. The paddling races were first practiced throughout Southern China as part of religious ceremonies and folk customs. In the past few decades, the sport has become increasingly popular throughout the world, especially among cancer survivors.
One hundred and twenty teams of just breast cancer survivors are currently participating in the race in Florence. There are more than 160 teams of just breast cancer survivors around the world.
Lucia de Ranieri, the president of the group that organized this year’s Dragon Boat Festival, summed the allure of dragon boating up perfectly. She said the goal of the race is to “highlight how it’s possible to overcome difficulties together – something that we see play out in the dragon boat itself. It’s only by moving together in unison that we manage to reach the finish line.”
That team effort is a major reason that so many survivors are hopping aboard dragon boats.
Judy Levitan ViaCava, who is on a team of survivors from New Jersey called the Machestic Dragons, said that she first got into dragon boating while she was finishing up her chemo treatments. “I went to one practice and got hooked,” she said.
These teams work because the members can understand each other’s struggles. And it’s definitely a struggle to get these boats gliding. Dragon boats are massive, most have seats to fit 20 paddlers, a steersperson, and a drummer, and they are typically embellished with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails. The steersperson stands at the front of the boat, maneuvers the steering oar, and directs the paddlers, while the drummer sits at the back of the boat and synchronizes their strokes with those of the leading paddlers. The sport requires strong and synchronized teams, and Florence is currently full of them.
“The city is embracing us,” Levitan ViaCava said, “all 4,00 survivors strong! The joy, camaraderie and support we feel is palpable … This is no pity party. We are all strong thrivers who may glance back to our fight with cancer just to remind ourselves how far we have come, so we can keep moving ahead.”
The dragon boating community for survivors is thriving for a number of reasons. It promotes a healthy lifestyle, gets survivors exercising whether they have just finished treatment or are going on a decade cancer-free, and it provides support people facing cancer may not be able to find in other communities.