During an illness or its recovery period, patients are often told to “get plenty of rest.” But recent studies show that exercise is actually important in the healing process of many diseases, even cancer.
Good sleep, regaining balance, weight control and decreased nausea are among the many rewards of exercise, not to mention improvement of mood and a general feeling of well-being. That’s why the doctor might recommend any number of activities: walking, running, swimming … or perhaps dragon boat racing.
When Vonnie Coover-Stone, a case manager at Sharp Coronado Hospital, was herself recovering from cancer in 2013, she was invited to try paddling a dragon boat in San Diego’s Mission Bay. She was skeptical. But she met up with the Team Survivor Sea Dragons, grabbed a paddle and fell instantly in love.
“It’s not like one of those other sports or activities where you are alone with your thoughts,” she explains. “It’s a unique type of high that you only get when you are working with a team, everyone literally pulling together, propelling your vessel forward, driving it with your combined strength and determination.”
Some 30 members of Sea Dragons meet every Tuesday evening and Sunday morning at the Youth Aquatic Center on Fiesta Island. They have a 10-person and a 20-person boat, which they launch and paddle for about an hour after warmup. In addition to simply exercising, they are training for competitions held throughout the year in San Diego, Tempe, Long Beach and as far away as Vancouver, Canada.
Dragon boat competitions date back to inter-village competitions in China first held over 2,000 years ago. The sport has grown in popularity in the U.S. for the past two decades; it came to the attention of cancer survivor groups in the late 1990s when research showed that upper body exercise was beneficial in the relief of swelling caused by lymphedema, a common side effect of breast cancer surgery.
There are breast cancer survivors among the Sea Dragons, but participation is open to those who have battled all forms of cancer. Team members have ranged in age as well, from 18 to 78.
Coover-Stone is quick to point out that the Sea Dragons are not about winning competitions, but rather thriving in the aftermath of a difficult disease. “We’re not a pity party, though,” she says. “We’re not AA, we’re not a talk-therapy group. Some people are afraid to join because they don’t want to dwell on cancer. But we’re just here to dwell on fresh air, friendship and the strength of our bodies. You know, life.”