Dragon boat team of cancer survivors keeps moving forward

When their dragon boat floated back to the dock at Lake Fairview Park, the group of paddlers on board smiled and wiped beads of sweat from their foreheads.

They’ve overcome tougher journeys.

Orlando Dragon Boat Club’s team of cancer survivors and supporters had just kicked off their celebration of National Cancer Survivors Day, designated as the first Sunday in June each year.

The group of survivors formed a dragon boat team to bring together the group from different backgrounds and careers that share the bond of defeating the disease, which the National Cancer Institute predicts will kill about 595,000 in the United States this year.

They formed a dragon boat team, sponsored by Orlando Health, to bring together a group of people who had prevailed in their fights with various cancers.

“When you’re on a boat with 20 people paddling with you, there’s such power. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it,” said Sally Florsek, who has been cancer-free for 11 years.

Dragon boats are long narrow vessels, typically decorated with scales of a dragon. The Orlando group’s boat is decorated with various colors signifying various forms of cancer, with Orlando Health’s emblem emblazoned on the hull.

Any money the Dragon Boat Club makes is donated back to Orlando Health, club administrator Melissa Romero said. The club runs numerous teams, including some competitive ones, and another that pairs at-risk youth with police officers to compete.

The sport of dragon boating dates back 2,000 years to ancient China, when rowers powered elaborately decorated boats to the rhythmic beat of a drum.

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For this team, it’s the cancer survivors who power the watercraft around the lake.

“Coming from being a survivor to being a paddler makes you feel more normal,” said Kat Thomas, cancer-free for eight years. “You don’t feel like a victim … being a paddler on a team gives you strength.”

The camaraderie is important for the group, which has been through so much, but the physical exercise also helps in recovery, as the disease and treatments take a toll on the body.

“When you have finished with all the treatments — the chemotherapy, the radiation — they don’t just weigh heavy on your mind emotionally, but physically,” Thomas said. “This is a good way of getting out and doing something physical to improve your being.”

On Sunday, the team pushed off the dock at Lake Fairview Park off Lee Road just after 9 a.m. and had paddled out of view within minutes. About an hour later, they were coasting back to land, another journey completed.

Team members said what they may lack in experience, they make up for in willpower and fighting spirit.

In a recent race on Lake Minneola in Clermont, choppy conditions toppled some teams’ boats and caused others to drop out.

But not this team.

“Being a survivor is all about living — you have to live life,” said Mark Staskus, who beat rectal cancer. “One thing a survivor does is never quit … no matter how rough the seas [are], we still finish.”

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