Lessons learned during a weekend with breast cancer survivors
For three days in early July, Florence was painted pink during the International Breast Cancer Paddler’s Commission Dragon Boat Festival. Rowers, coaches and supporters of all ages from around the world came to honour the triumphs and struggles of being diagnosed with breast cancer and working with those who have suffered from the illness. As a community, Florence welcomed them. Our motivations were varied, but at the heart of every reason was the desire to help this exceptional group of women who fight their cancer by rowing through the pain and defining what it means to be a survivor.
Hundreds met the challenge of staffing the festival. By the end of the third day, many of us had forged deep friendships and made memories for life. We can even assume that for those of us with little or no connection to the fight against cancer, our eyes have been opened to the incredible strength people can find within themselves when they do everything within their power to survive.
I stepped in as an ambassador when a friend had to withdraw due to prior commitments, but by the end of the event I was repentant for not having signed up from the get-go. As fellow ambassador Paul Feakes put it, “I will be forever grateful for the time spent with such an amazing group of strong women who showed support, camaraderie, friendship, compassion and hope.” Language proved no barrier to interaction for the nearly 130 international teams taking part in the race. From the moment the gates opened, participants strolled from tent to tent, exchanging team shirts, magnets, pins, and even temporary tattoos. At the end of every communication, there was always a “Good luck today!” or “Enjoy the race!” The solidarity was to be expected, but the levels of it left me wide-eyed in wonder.
Spending the weekend with these ladies was humbling, which ambassadors Karen Thomas and her husband Eddie articulated when they explained about how “hearing these ladies’ stories and seeing the courage and determination was a reminder to enjoy each day and give life your best shot”. In the wake of the event, ambassador Sarah Whitman defined the word “survivor” as “women who have had the willpower to sacrifice personal privacy and share an intimate part of themselves for the common good of raising awareness and healing through positive action.” I couldn’t agree more.
But these women are more than just survivors; they are women who have survived the greatest of challenges and resolved to live their lives to the fullest. Some ambassadors accompanied their teams around town, bonding as they shared experiences. Renato Pellegrini took his group out for a meal and up to piazzale Michelangelo, while Patricia Estrada locked down a dinner reservation for her entire team of 26 and their guests just a week before the event. It’s no surprise that Florence’s ambassadors and volunteers have gained new friends and a renewed spirit.
Fellow ambassador Katie Lee had a special reason for volunteering and found more peace with her decision than she had expected. Diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 36, she felt that she was “running a race by myself, standing on the battlefield with bare hands, armorless and alone in a foreign land”. After spending the weekend with the Dragon Boat rowers, especially those representing her home country of Taiwan, she understood that far from being alone, she was part of a community of “thousands of impeccable warriors”. Buoyed by this newfound insight, Lee says, “I learned to hold my head up high and take ownership of my life”.
As the second day of races wound down, thousands stood along the banks of the Arno to watch the final race, the Sandy Smith Global Finale, named in memory of one of the key figures behind the international event, with one person from each team participating on their group’s behalf. The woman next to me leaned over unprompted and said, “Do you see the woman in the green in that boat? She’s from our team. She’s really, really sick. She’s not doing well at all, so we wanted her to represent us in the finale, since she’ll probably never be able to do anything like this ever again”. Winning or losing was of little consequence for these women; it’s simply about being there for one’s fellow survivors and supporting those who still have a long way to go.
The Dragon Boat Festival is an opportunity to take stock of our lives and evaluate our relationships with others and the world around us, but most importantly we celebrated the lives and successes of the women who inspired us to do so.
by “The Florentine” newspaper.