DUBAI // The camaraderie, team spirit and competitive nature of dragon-boat racing can give a vital boost to breast cancer patients, experts and survivors say.
Regular exercise and bonding with team members while paddling in the long, narrow boats can help survivors better cope with debilitating radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
For Connie Adams, joining the all-women's Dubai Sea Dragons three years ago was the best decision she had made since she moved from Scotland in 2006.
"I was at the end of my tether because I hadn't found my niche here," said Mrs Adams, 55, who teaches English at a language school. "Then I went for a dragon-boat meeting and immediately felt that this was me.
"When I started paddling I wasn't fit because I'd had radiotherapy. I was lucky because the cancer hadn't spread, but I felt as if I couldn't move; everything seemed to be a big effort.
"I was a beginner but there is nothing like that feeling when you're out there on the boat of powering through the water."
Mrs Adams, a mother of three, completed radiation therapy in Aberdeen after her breast cancer was diagnosed in 2005. Later in Dubai she found a sense of community with the dragon boaters.
"We know what it's like when you land in a new place and we welcome newcomers," she said. "It's great exercise and fun too. We have some laughs and if you want a moan you can have that too."
Dragon-boat racing has its roots in China more than 2,500 years ago. The boats fit 20 people and the team must paddle in unison.
Formed in 2007, the Dubai Sea Dragons is among about a dozen clubs in the Emirates that compete regularly.
The club, along with Friends of Cancer Patients (FOCP), has organised paddling days this Monday and next Saturday to raise awareness of breast cancer. Details are available on dubaiseadragons.net.
The club has won competitions locally and in Malaysia, Hong Kong and Macau. The next contest is in Abu Dhabi at the end of the month.
Although only a handful of paddlers in the team have battled breast cancer, their example motivates the group.
"The strength of these women is fantastic," said Helen Schrader, who joined in February and volunteers with the Pink Caravan campaign, part of the FOCP's awareness drive.
"Paddling is empowering. It gives women the strength they need, they are happy and in charge of their body."
Several overseas studies have shown exercise as an effective form of therapy that improves the attitude of cancer patients.
Research in 2009 at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, showed women who regularly exercised with their dragon boat team suffered less post-traumatic stress, compared with others who suffered breast cancer.
"Exercising the hands vigorously helps to increase lymphatic circulation so these women won't have the swollen arms that women usually have after breast surgery," said Dr Sawsan Al Madhi, the FOCP secretary general.
"Through these clubs' information, side-effects of treatment can be shared and someone who just got the diagnosis can bond with a survivor," Dr Al Madhi said.
"When she sees a survivor living her life to the fullest, this living example creates a much bigger impact than any advice a doctor can give in any hospital."