When Lisa Palin went to a lymphedema conference three years ago, she saw a table with brochures explaining that paddling could be good for people with her condition. Lymphedema is swelling caused by lymph fluid building up in the fatty tissue under the skin, often in response to cancer treatment. There were dragon boat racing teams just for cancer survivors, and she could join one.
“I just wasn’t at the right point in my life to do it, so I took all their flyers. I brought it home, and I put it in a drawer.” She’s a mother of twins. This year, after Palin became an empty nester, she dug the flyers back out and contacted Wellness Warriors, a cancer-survivor dragon boat racing team based in Boston. She’s gearing up for her first race this weekend.
The Wellness Warriors is one of 45 teams competing in the Boston Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival this weekend. On Sunday, the festival will return for the first time since 2019. Racers will compete in timed trials on Saturday to determine divisions for Sunday’s race.
Dragon boats are 39-foot-long, canoe-shaped boats with 10 benches designed for two rowers each. In the front, a drummer is perched on a seat to beat in rhythm with the strokes and motivate the team; in the back, a steerer keeps the boat on course. Dragon boat racing has been going on for more than 2,000 years in China and Taiwan.
For decades, cancer survivors have gravitated toward dragon boating since a Canadian doctor wrote in a medical journal in 1998 that he recommended it for his breast cancer patients not just because it provided good upper body exercise, but because the camaraderie and support of teammates seemed to help change his patients’ attitudes about life after cancer.
For the Wellness Warriors, it’s about more than just racing. They’re each other’s support group and a tight-knit community. They welcome survivors of any kind of cancer, and current members range in age from 27 to 79. About a fifth of the team’s active members join recreationally for the occasional practice, but others are looking for more of a competitive edge.
Jennifer Wolter, co-captain, was attracted to the group because she’s been an athlete from a young age, playing field hockey and softball.
“I was playing sports literally up until my diagnosis,” Wolter said while waiting to get into a dragon boat Monday on the Cambridge side of the Charles River, near MIT on Monday. She was unable to run after her breast cancer treatments, so she joined Wellness Warriors, longing for competition.
Some of the teams competing in this year’s festival are community teams. They got together specifically for this festival and had three, two-hour long practices to train. The others are club teams that practice all summer. The Wellness Warriors are a club team that practices twice a week. They usually compete in the all-cancer paddler division in festivals. During the last full season before the pandemic, they even qualified for the Dragon Boat World Championships in France.
Typically, there is a cancer-survivor division of Boston’s festival, but since the festival is scaled back for public safety, Wellness Warriors are the only all-cancer paddlers competing this year. Wellness Warriors welcomes all cancer survivors, regardless of physical ability. Sometimes, this means that they’re not as competitive as some would like.
“We’re usually first in our own lane,” quipped Kathleen Schnaidt, president of the Wellness Warriors. But win or lose, dragon boat racing is known to be beneficial for cancer survivors. “It’s a full body sport, you’re twisting your torso, you’re reaching down, you’re using your legs to push up. Plus, there’s breathing rhythmically and working as a team with other people.”
For the past two years, the Wellness Warriors have stayed connected through Zoom cooking, painting, and yoga lessons and kayaking trips. The team even took turns hosting a “Who needs France?” event week after the world championship was canceled. Every new person is assigned a mentor to help get adjusted to the team.
“What brings us all together is that we all get that exhilaration of living life to the fullest because we’ve all had a pretty awful scare,” said Linda Martin, Palin’s mentor. She joined the team in 2018 after having cancer for the second time in 2016. “We don’t sit around talking about cancer, but we’re there for each other when we have scans and other things that kind of remind us of the trauma we’ve been through. Sometimes, our teammates get it better than our family members do.”
“I never thought I would be here at MIT getting ready to go out on the Charles,” said Palin. “I’m not there to win. I’m winning because I’m there.”
The 43rd Boston Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival will be held June 12. Races begin at 8 a.m. on the Charles River starting at the John W. Weeks Bridge. The eye dotting ceremony, which kicks off the cultural program with dance, music, and demonstrations, begins at noon. Cultural festivities take place in Riverbend Park, near the Weeks Bridge and Harvard Square. The event goes until 5 p.m. and is free to attend. For more information, visit www.bostondragonboat.org.
Serena Puang was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.