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Jackie expected to feel like new after treatment, but she struggled with her fitness. She explains how dragon boat racing helped her regain fitness and find people who understood.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer after a routine mammogram at 63 years old. I was surprised when I received my diagnosis, as nobody in my family had had breast cancer. I felt numb.
During chemotherapy, I was told I carried the inherited, altered BRCA2 gene. This means you are more at risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer. My sister died of ovarian cancer, so it was difficult to tell my family and my sister’s children about this and what it might mean for them. I then needed more surgery, including an oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries) and a second mastectomy.
When treatment finished, I expected to feel like a new person, but I struggled with ongoing physical side effects. I had cording after surgery and was unable to do Pilates due to muscle tightening in my chest, which was upsetting. I went from being very fit to unfit.
I felt frustrated at the time it was taking to get better physically. My physiotherapist suggested joining a dragon boat racing team called ‘Wave Walkers,’ with people who’ve also had an experience of cancer. I enjoyed learning and participating in something new after stopping most of my usual activities.
Dragon Boat racing involves paddling just on one side, but we normally change sides mid-session to use both arms. The skill is to master the technique, which isn’t all about the arms, but a slight twisting motion, where strength comes from your core and legs. It’s easy on the knees and hips.
Most years, our team goes to Venice to participate in the Vogalonga on the Grand Canal. With our green oars, we are very distinctive!
It was brilliant paddling down the Grand Canal with everyone waving at us, and we bonded while we were away. I’ve done other challenging activities, but this was very special, as I didn't think I’d be able to stretch myself that way after treatment. I even texted friends and family pictures of us –something I don’t normally do. That was the point I felt I was back to some sort of ‘new normal’.
Being part of a team where you don’t have to be embarrassed about cancer is so important. People at Wave Walkers socialise and support each other. The members come from a range of backgrounds and parts of London. But we’re all there to paddle, have fun and get fit.
Being on the water is calming. You must think about your stroke. We all know how it feels to have an off day, so there’s no judgement if you’re struggling. We all have good days and bad days and just laugh about it. You don’t have to go every week and can come when you want to. However, you do get hooked!
Recovery after breast cancer isn’t immediate. But slowly, you will get there. While it’s not for everyone, trying new things like dragon boat racing really helped me after treatment.
Find more articles on exercise, plus other hints and tips for moving forward after treatment, in our free Becca app: