Paddling with a Purpose

Paddling with a purpose. Bringing a community of breast-cancer survivors together… on a boat.

By: Olivia Condon

Nearly 10 years ago, Adele Challis heard a radio interview that would change her life.

It had been about five years since her breast cancer diagnosis and mastectomy when she heard about a team of breast cancer surviving women who were part of a dragon boat team in Vancouver. 

“I found out about a festival here in Edmonton and I went down and found the breast cancer team in their tent,” she said. “I pretty much walked in and introduced myself and said ‘you want me, I’m strong’ and they did.”

Fast-forward nine years and Adele has a clean bill of health, has accomplished incredible feats of strength and willpower with her team, Breast Friends, and continues to grow her involvement in the sport.

“It’s totally been the silver lining to the cancer. It changed my life.” 

When Adele was 39 years old, she was given the news that one in eight Canadian women will hear in their lifetime: “You have breast cancer.”

“It came out of nowhere,” she said. “I had gone to my doctor for a mammogram six months earlier that came back clear.”

In half a year, Adele started to feel something wasn’t right. Her breast had become red, hot and swollen.

“Within six months I had a breast that was full of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), or pre-cancer.”

Because the cancer was throughout the breast’s ducts, chemotherapy and radiation weren’t possible. A mastectomy was her only option.

“Then the decision I had to make was to get reconstruction and I didn’t care, I thought, whatever, no problem, I can do this,” she said, remembering how over time, and because of how “awful the bras were” she decided at 38 to go ahead with reconstruction.

Thankfully, Adele’s battle with cancer ended there. But the experience opened up a new door into a world she never imagined she’d be a part of.

“I would never be in this kind of shape on my own,” she laughed. “But the most important part of it is the amazing people I’ve met.”

“We have never sat down and moaned and went over our cancer histories, we kinda wanted to get past that. There’s no forgiveness because of it. You’re on a team, we’re racing and the expectation is that you keep up.”

Adele’s team, Breast Friends, Edmonton’s chapter of the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC), has travelled the world, as far as Florence, Italy for festivals and races.

The IBCPC currently has 227 teams across 25 countries and keeps introducing the sport to breast cancer survivors around the world.

“This team has given back confidence,” she said. “And I feel it’s stress that has a big part in cancer. My team is full of caregivers: nurses, teachers, people who give of themselves to others and often don’t look after themselves well. This team can and has given that confidence to help get through things.”

Adele has now expanded her dragon boat career and is part of a Canadian team for women over 50, called Mother of Dragons.

“I love this sport and it’s still emerging, I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be an Olympic sport. It should be.”

Calgary has its own two teams under the name Sistership, that recently wrapped up a tournament on the Glenmore Reservoir where they came in first and second place.

Laura McNeill is a board member for Sistership Calgary and has been paddling on the team for five years. Laura said she’s connected with her teammates and with herself on a level she wouldn’t have thought possible after her breast cancer diagnosis.

“We are sisters that are all in the same boat,” she said. “We’ve all been through breast cancer and we all paddle with the same goal in mind of health and wellness.”

“There’s a different connection with people who have also had it that you can just connect on a different level. You understand what each other has been through and you can support in a different way.”

All teams in the IBCPC also have a mandate to give back to the community, hosting and attending fundraisers in their region to bring awareness to their organization and make an impact. As a non-profit, teams are always looking for donations and sponsorship to keep the clubs going.

“I encourage survivors to come out and join the team,” Laura said. “It’s life changing and it helps you see the light at the end of the tunnel after being through breast cancer. You can get yourself back.” 

Pictures submitted by Adele Challis & Laura McNeill.

More information about Breast Friends, the IBCPC and Sistership Calgary can be found here.


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