Breast cancer survivors celebrate life and sport at 10th Annual Dragon Boat Festival

    Thirty-three dragon boat teams gathered together at A. J. Jolly Park on Saturday, September 7, 2019, to participate in the 10th Annual Kentucky Dragon Boat Festival, Paddling for the Pink. This annual fundraiser raises monies for breast cancer awareness in our area, and teams from all over come in to participate. This year, breast cancer survivor teams were invited to come without paying entry fees due to the anniversary celebration, and nine teams from around the country and from across the border accepted the invitation. The other 24 teams were formed by community and church members from the region who decided to support the fundraising efforts of the Kentucky Thorough-breasts/Saddle & Paddle Dragon Boat Racing Teams.
    The boat races are based upon a Chinese ritual that dates back approximately 2,500 years. In 1996, a Canadian sports medicine specialist researched its benefits and recommended the sport to breast cancer survivors because “it reaches out to other women and offers them a message of hope and support..helping to change attitudes toward ‘life after breast cancer.’”
    Survivors who participate in racing confirm the doctor’s research repeatedly.
    Breast cancer is one of the biggest fears women and their loved ones have, and when they hear the diagnosis, most are devastated by those words; however, one woman shared that one of her care-takers had quite a different outlook on her circumstances as she helped her navigate all the treatment plans and the emotions that went with that.
    “Someone told me, ‘This diagnosis will become your best friend.’ I didn’t believe her at the time, but it was true.”
    She soon found out that she had support from places she never dreamed, and one of those support systems came through joining a dragon boat team, a group of female athletes who have fought breast cancer themselves or who have been touched by breast cancer in some way. These women support each other as they celebrate survival and as they go through the trials of treatments and doctor’s appointments.
    The sport not only gives fighters a support group; it gives both fighters and survivors a means of leaving the pain and fear or recurrence behind for a while. “When I go out on the boat, I leave everything out on the water,” explains Sandy Brzezinski, a member of the Hope Chest Dragon Boat Team from Buffalo, New York. “We are a sisterhood. We work together to make it happen.”
    The word “sisterhood” is one you hear over and over again from breast cancer patients, survivors, and supporters who have taken up the paddling sport. This attitude spurs on not only those who have fought the breast cancer battle and have won, but it also inspires those team members who are currently in the battle to show up to practice sessions immediately after they leave chemo.
    While those who have fought breast cancer have a special bond, loved ones who rally around them form a type of bond, as well. When the Kentucky Dragon Boat Festival comes around, community groups work as teams to raise  money to help their loved ones continue the fight
    “It’s a fundraiser, and it is a great way for men and women, old and young, to work together for a cause. Almost everyone who does this will see a survivor doing this,” Elgersma explains. “It is a physically demanding sport, and the volunteers who join a community team find out just how tough it is.”
    This year, Pendleton County saw two local teams who were quite successful in helping the cause. Oakland Christian Church worked together to bring in well over $900, coming in second in the fundraising competition.
And then there was Breast Friends, a group of good friends who have participated in the last six dragon boat events at A. J. Jolly. The group not only came in first place in the fundraising competition by gathering over $3,400, but they entertained the crowd while doing so. Celebrating their participation this year with the hippie theme, they contributed almost as much energy as did the survivor teams.
    They race once a year.
    “I just like being on the water,” first-year paddler Amanda McElfresh shares. “After I signed up, I learned that my cousin is one we paddle for. She is on our shirt.”
According to Melissa Dawson, Crystal Simpson paddles for her grandmother who is a survivor. Crystal has paddled for eight years, and she has been the captain of Breast Friends for six of those years.
    “We’re just a group of friends,” Dawson explains. “We come here to win! Every year, we keep the name, but we go with a different theme.”
    Their secret to fundraising success is finding the potential in every situation.
    “We do several fundraisers,” Dawson explains. We held Gospel on the Ridge; we do raffles and silent auctions; we set up buckets in local businesses; we do donation boards where people pick one of 50 envelopes, and they donate whatever amount the envelope has in it.”
    The Breast Friends did not win the races. The Derby City Dragons from Louisville won the first-place medal; however, their fundraising efforts, along with everyone else’s, helped created a win for all who suffer from the disease.
    The Thorough-breasts always take time from the race to honor the supporters for the event as well as the survivors and the six members whom they have lost since the beginning of the event in 2010. This year’s ceremony included its usual Rose Ceremony, a tribute that honored nearly 225 survivors from cities such as Tampa  and Windsor Essex County, Canada, along with the area’s own. The organization also celebrated two community teams who have participated each year since the festival began: Oakland Crusaders, formed by Oakland Christian Church, and the Ft. Thomas Rack Rescuers, formed by the Ft. Thomas St. Elizabeth Emergency Department. The Kentucky Thorough-Breasts also held a retirement ceremony for the first Thorough-Breasts dragon boat, K.T.--a boat that had been on the water with them for 11 years.
    Fundraising efforts on the day of the races included a raffle and a silent auction. These brought in over $5100 according to Phyllis Kelsch who organizes that popular area each year.  Entry fees and other fundraising by the teams brought in a total of nearly $35,000 to support the needs of local breast cancer patients.