Cancer survivors find healing, and friendship, in dragon boats
Recreation and healthGetting stronger on the water

Cancer survivors find healing, and friendship, in dragon boats

The sport can benefit breast cancer survivors

Hearts of Steel team photo, 2022 (Photo by Paul Selvaggio)
Hearts of Steel team photo, 2022 (Photo by Paul Selvaggio)

Naomi Herman was in her early 60s when cancer struck.

The Jewish South Hills woman, who grew up in Greenfield, was diagnosed about 17 years ago with breast cancer. When she first received the news, she quickly shot off a group email to her four daughters and three stepdaughters. The subject line? “A hiccup.”

“Hiccups go away eventually — you deal with them and you move forward,” said Herman, today a 78-year-old grandmother of 18 who has retired from a career working in area nonprofits. “I had people who were very supportive and I was fortunate enough to have health insurance.”

After Herman underwent a lumpectomy, as well as chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she was declared cancer-free. Then, one day, one of her children saw a flyer at the gym promoting a water sport looking for breast cancer survivors.

“I don’t swim — and water and me? Not great!” Herman laughed. “But I thought, ‘OK, I’ll go and see what this is all about.’”

Within weeks of going to a coach’s home for a spring meeting, Herman was hooked — and she could see herself rebounding from the strain of her cancer journey. In May or June, soon after Herman completed her radiation regimen, she didn’t have quite the stamina to paddle through a whole ride.

“By August, I could do the whole thing,” she said proudly. “That said to me that I can see the improvement.”

Herman and the other paddlers on Pink Steel — the Steel City Dragons’ breast cancer survivor team, which works out of Fox Chapel Marine — are not alone. There are at least three dragon boating teams in the Pittsburgh area, from Pink Steel to the Paddlefish, which is a group without cancer survivors.

But dragon boat racing, which involves 20 paddlers, a navigator and a drummer, also has become an international movement for breast cancer survivors, with at least 240 breast cancer survivor dragon boat racing communities in 30 countries, from the U.S. and Canada to Israel and Australia.

Antarctica is the only continent without a dragon boating squad, some involved in the sport say.

The sport helps many survivors avoid a complication of breast cancer: lymphedema, painful swelling that sometimes occurs after surgeons remove the lymph nodes. New research shows that the upper body exercise entailed in this sport decreases lymphedema risk, and the exertion of the core muscles helps as well.

Herman still remembers her first competitive dragon boating race.

“I don’t remember where it was, but I remember being very nervous, thinking, ‘Am I going to have enough breath to get through this?’” Herman said. “Part of it was not wanting to let my team down.”
Laura Schatzkamer met Herman around 2010, two years after her own battle with breast cancer. It was just about the time she trekked to the marina near her Cheswick home to check out a special Memorial Day weekend practice by Pink Steel.

“They gave me a racing shirt and that was it,” laughed Schatzkamer, a Jewish woman known as “Schmack” to many on the team. “I came on a Saturday and never left.”

Schatzkamer had been teaching at the Community College of Allegheny County since 1991 and at Carlow University since about 2007. She left both, at least in a full-time capacity, after her first grandchild was born this August.

Schatzkamer, who today paddles as well as coaches, swears by Pink Steel.

“It was the greatest thing, I think, that ever happened to me,” she said. “It changed my life — I like to say, ‘I didn’t think I needed anything.’ But that’s exactly what I needed.”

Sandy Hirsch, who lives in Squirrel Hill and attends services at Congregation Beth Shalom, battled breast cancer shortly before moving to Pittsburgh about 21 years ago. She’s a member of the Three Rivers Rowing Association’s breast cancer survivor dragon boating team, Pittsburgh Hearts of Steel. The 47-member team docks its three dragon boats in Millvale; its members, like Pink Steel, practice on the Allegheny River.

Members of the breast cancer survivor team “have this bond that brought us together — the breast cancer — but that’s not the focus,” Hirsch said. “I’m a person that likes being active. And Pittsburgh is known for its three rivers. I love there’s that piece to the dragon boating.”

Hirsch is dedicated to her squad. She trekked to New Zealand this year for the international IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival, which is held every three to four years by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission. The festival is an international participatory event for breast cancer paddler teams.

The races weren’t competitive, but the organizers still posted each team’s times.

“We did pretty darn well,” Hirsch said.

Hirsch loves paddling back in Pittsburgh along the Allegheny.

“We see the skyline,” she said. “And it can be really beautiful.”

Herman, now well past her cancer battle, has other physical goals. She plans to walk, unaided and unassisted, to her youngest grandchild’s high school graduation. That child recently started third grade.

Dragon boating, she said, is helping her ensure she’s not slowing down.

“I told one of the girls, ‘I want to do this ‘til I’m 80,’” Herman said. “Well, I’m approaching that. Maybe I can go longer.”

“There’s no reason I can’t continue to do this.” PJC

Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.

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