WATCH: Paddle power of brave Northern Ireland breast cancer survivors

GRAEME COUSINS talks to two women behind an inspirational sports club that is benefitting people who have survived breast cancer

There are few better sights than a team of rowers – or in this instance paddlers – scything a line through the water.

Lagan Dragons practising on the Lagan in Belfast

Lagan Dragons practising on the Lagan in Belfast

In the case of Lagan Dragons, that steady forward movement is even more meaningful given that the boats are being powered by women who have survived breast cancer.

The dragon boat racing team was founded in 2015 by Ballymena-based teacher Joanne Rock. Having gone through breast cancer treatment, Joanne had a chance meeting back in 2013 with a Dublin dragon boat paddler and was motivated to take up the sport.

She joined Team Ireland as a novice paddler and had to travel to Dublin for training sessions: “I’d never set foot in a boat before apart from the ferry to Scotland.

“We trained and then went out to compete in Florida against teams from all over the world. It was just such an incredible uplifting experience and I was so much stronger for it. No matter how strong you are during surgery it takes its toll – physically and mentally.”

The Lagan Dragons in action

The Lagan Dragons in action

Joanne was determined to bring the concept to NI so in 2015 she set up Lagan Dragons, the Province’s first dragon boat club for people affected by breast cancer.

Her hard work and visionary leadership of Lagan Dragons was recognised with a BEM in the 2019 New Year’s Honours list.

The 49-year-old mother-of-three explained the rationale behind dragon boat paddling for people who have overcome breast cancer: “It’s the repetitive upper body movement involved in paddling which is really good for people who are getting over breast cancer surgery.

“It’s not a gentle sport, it is very vigorous. At the big regattas, to see all these ladies out there on the water is just a phenomenal sight, knowing they’ve all been sat in the same chair as you and told, ‘you have breast cancer’, to come back like that is just so powerful.

Lagan Dragons, the boat racing club for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery, is the latest recipient of Power NI's grass roots funding programme, Brighter Communities.  'The �1000 grant will enable the Belfast based club to buy new equipment including paddles and buoyancy aids and facilitate more people to come along and try out dragon boat racing. 'Celebrating the funding award are Jo Myles and Joanne Rock from the Lagan Dragons.

Lagan Dragons, the boat racing club for women who have undergone breast cancer surgery, is the latest recipient of Power NI's grass roots funding programme, Brighter Communities. 'The �1000 grant will enable the Belfast based club to buy new equipment including paddles and buoyancy aids and facilitate more people to come along and try out dragon boat racing. 'Celebrating the funding award are Jo Myles and Joanne Rock from the Lagan Dragons.

“The chat, enthusiasm, support and care that these women bring on board the boat is just second to none.”

The club – which held its first ever regatta in June 2017 with over 400 participants and 1000 spectators – has gone from strength to strength and has over 60 members aged from 30 to their mid-70s who train weekly on Saturdays out of Belfast Boat Club.

Lagan Dragons have two boats – each 40 foot long and capable of holding 20 paddlers, a helm to steer, and a drummer to keep rhythm.

Joanne said: “It is the second fastest growing team support in the world after football. The breast cancer side of it is growing too.

“I had seen recently that there are 85 million participants around the world.

“It’s a very cost effective and safe way of getting people out on the water.”

Jo Myles, a committee member of Lagan Dragons, explained how she got involved: “We heard about Joanne’s idea by word of mouth at the hospital. There were quite a few of us who were just finishing our breast cancer treatment. We went along to a meeting and heard what the plan was. We thought it was a great idea.

“We had a taster session where we paid for the hire of the boats. We started paddling each week every Saturday morning and more people started hearing about us. We got a Facebook page and website set up, got leaflets printed and put them in the hospital. Doctors and nurses started referring patients to us.”

Jo, a voice over artist from Co Tyrone who now lives in Lisburn with her 13-year-old son, said: “Because so many of us have gone through the treatment we can understand the side effects that come with that. We can tailor our paddling to recognise those sort of issues. But it’s not just about the paddling, it’s the meeting up for a cup of tea and bit of cake afterwards. There’s a community aspect, a sense of belonging.

“Once the breast cancer treatment ends, it just stops. There’s nothing to fill that gap of the merry-go-round you’d been on where you were going to the hospital once or twice a week, you had doctors and nurses running around you, taking great care of you. You lose your tribe as it were.

“To fall into a club like Lagan Dragons you all of a sudden have a tribe again of people who understand. People who are kind, supportive and can make you laugh about it again. It’s so good to be in a boat with all those women around you. When you finish a race you can hardly breath, all your muscles are burning. It’s just great fun.”

The club is not just for women and men who have undergone breast cancer, their families are welcome to join in as well. The requirements to take part in a breast cancer regatta are that 80% of the team are breast cancer survivors.

Speaking of her battle with breast cancer Joanne said: “I was diagnosed in 2007, a month after my mum was diagnosed for the second time.

“We both went through surgery and treatment at the same time. She was a great support and comfort to me. She’s still here today.”

She added: “My children were 10, 12 and 2 when I went in for surgery on my 38th birthday which was a barrel of laughs as you can imagine. I had a double mastectomy and further preventative surgery because I carry the BRCA 1 gene.

“About a year or so after the surgery and treatment it really hit me. The physical scars may be healing but the mental scars are still there.

“That’s when I decided to try to exercise a bit more to lift my mood, my self-esteem.

“It really helped me.”

Jo was diagnosed at 41: “I had six surgeries and chemotherapy and radiotherapy over about three and half years.

“I was so used to going to City Hospital that there were times I was driving to Belfast after the treatment was over and by default I drove to City Hospital, even though I’d intended to go to Castlecourt.

“I feel good now. The (dragon boat) team has been a big part of my recovery.”

Explaining the difference between rowing and paddling, Jo said: “Rowing is where you have your back to the river and move backwards. What we do is paddling. We go forwards. That’s quite a positive message for us as breast cancer survivors. We’re moving forward with life.”

The self-funded club which is run on a voluntary basis were able to purchase their own boats after three years of hiring boats.

They recently received a £1000 grant from Power NI’s grass roots funding programme – Brighter Communities. It will enable them to buy new equipment including paddles and buoyancy aids and facilitate more people to come along and try the sport.

• Lagan Dragons meet once a week during the winter, and twice a week from April to September

• The club enters a number of races and regattas, the biggest to date being an international breast cancer competition in Florence, Italy in July 2018 with 121 teams from 18 countries

• Anyone interested in joining should go to www.lagandragons.com