A GROUP of Irish cancer sufferers and survivors recently returned from a 12,000-mile round-trip to Kuala Lumpur where they competed for Ireland in dragon-boat racing. There they beat off competition from 14 countries to win silver and bronze in their two races.
The Plurabelle Paddlers are our first dragon-boat team and were in Malaysia to represent Ireland in the inaugural Cancer Survivors World Cup 2011. Before they hit our shores the only place dragon boats were regularly seen was in 'Hawaii-Five-O's title sequence. Now they are being used to help cancer sufferers to rehabilitate as they offer a safe way of doing upper body exercise.
The Plurabelle Paddlers were set up last year by cancer survivor Fiona Tiernan.
"I had a recurrence of breast cancer two years ago and wanted to manage my health. I had been reading about the benefits of exercise and came across dragon-boat racing and got stuck into getting it set up. I had an open day when more than 100 people turned up. After that we started fundraising."
The Plurabelle Paddlers started with two members last year and now have more than 70 and two dragon boats.
"We had no money and no boats a year ago. Each boat costs €8,000. We fundraised and got money from the HSE. To get to Malaysia we got support from companies like Etihad, who sponsored our flights," she says.
"Each boat holds 22 people. There are 20 paddlers and the two others are steering and beating a drum. We don't talk about cancer when we're out in the boats. You're focused on paddling," adds Fiona.
There were 60 teams at the Malaysian event, made up of 1,500 competitors from 14 countries.
One of the Irish dragon-boat competitors was mother-of-three Fiona Slevin. Fiona's sister Jenny was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2004. Jenny recovered but suffered a recurrence in autumn 2007 and died in 2009.
Fiona was also diagnosed with breast cancer the week before Christmas in 2004 when her youngest child was just one year old.
"I left the meeting in the hospital that day, went to Smyth's toys and bought the children the best Christmas presents ever." Fiona went on to have a lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and has now recovered.
Fiona got into dragon-boat racing following a chance encounter with Plurabelle Paddlers' founder Fiona Tiernan at a cancer conference in August 2010.
"When you get cancer you are just getting through it. You are dealing with GPs, oncologists, the hospital and you feel helpless in the whole process.
"Dragon-boat racing is something you can do for yourself. We also just understand where we have been. With friends and family, it can be a bit difficult as they sometimes don't know how to deal with you, but there's an easiness with the team because we've all gone through the same thing," adds Fiona Slevin.
One of the main benefits of dragon boating is to reduce the occurrence of lymphedema, a swelling of the arms and chest area caused by surgery, often to remove lymph nodes.
The upper body exercise involved in the paddling helps manage lymphedema and has also been shown to aid recovery from cancer.
Another member of the Plurabelle Paddlers is Margy Fitzsimons from Clondalkin, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 at the age of 43.
Cancer has been ever present in Margy's life. "My mum died of a brain tumour, leaving eight children behind when I was only 17. Dad died in 2000 from lung cancer. My youngest son got leukaemia when he was five -- he recovered -- and I was diagnosed in 2003.
"I said to myself if my son can beat cancer I am going to beat it. He inspired me."
Seven years on and after a successful recovery Margy decided she had to get fit.
"I saw Fiona on the telly. They had an open day. Normally I wouldn't go along to something like this but it sounded so different. It's hard getting fit when you're on your own. It's easier when you're part of a team," she says.
"When I was diagnosed I was told 'don't do this' and 'don't do that' -- that's very negative. If you're active and physical you're more likely to stay fit. I'd say to anyone -- come along!
"The nature of the illness is such that it knocks your confidence. You can't drive, you can't do a lot of things. Give dragon-boat racing a go. You might just enjoy it!"
•Dragon Boating -- www.plurabellepaddlers.com
•The National Cancer Helpline -- 1 800 200 700
Health & Living