Breast Cancer survivors practice for Dragon Boat races

More than 50 teams competing this year

In just a few days, more than a thousand competitors will take to the waters of the Black River for the Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival, raising money for Mayo Clinic Health Systems’ Center for Breast Care.

This is the third year of the Big Blue Dragon Boat races in La Crosse, but because the event has become so popular, it’s the first year the races are having their own festival.

It takes 20 people to paddle a Big Blue Dragon Boat, and for the last several weeks, the more than 50 teams registered for this year’s races have been getting in some practice time out on the water.

Sheila Perkins was diagnosed, battled and beat breast cancer six years ago.

She has been paddling her way through remission at all three of the Big Blue Dragon Boat races in La Crosse.

“Some of my best friends now are people that I met dragon boating three years ago,” Perkins said.

This year, the breast cancer survivor team is taking their prep to dragon boat racing to another level.

Since February, Perkins has led her team in weekly exercises, then once the dragon boats were put in the water her team has been practicing their paddling stroke along the Black River.

“It’s certainly a fundraising event, but it’s also to encourage our breast cancer survivors to get into a fitness program, to exercise regularly and having the race as a goal then you know why you’re exercising,” Perkins said.

Jane Harrison is a different team than Perkins, but has a similar story. She beat breast cancer 25 years ago.

“I’m very committed to raising money for breast cancer research,” Harrison said.

Harrison said she has always wanted to participate in the dragon boat racing event, but has never been able to find enough people to fill her boat. This year, she got a boat full of support.

“Friends, family, acquaintances from Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin,” said Suzee Farmer, Harrison’s teammate and fellow team captain.

Though both Perkins and Harrison want to win the coveted dragon trophy, they both say the Big Blue Dragon Festival is about more than winning.

“I don’t think there’s a big focus on our minds of that whole cancer experience, it’s like we’re putting that behind us, we’re paddling now and moving onto probably the next chapter of our lives,” Perkins said.

Perkins said that there is a connection between Big Blue Dragon Boat racing and breast cancer.

She said a common side affect of breast cancer is arm lymphedema, which is swelling in your arms, that can occur after a lymph node is removed or damaged during cancer treatment, but she said studies have proven that people who are exercising and participating in these races are not developing lymphedema.

The Big Blue Dragon Boat Festival begins with opening ceremonies, kids races and live music on Friday. Races begin at 8 a.m. Saturday morning.

If you’d like to know more about this year’s festival, click here.