Summerland resident Cathie Lauer is not only aware of what it means to be a breast cancer survivor, but was instrumental in starting Survivorship, the South Okanagan Breast Cancer Survivorship Dragon Boat Team.
Lauer was first diagnosed at the age of 44 and then after 18 years was re-diagnosed again last year.
“When you are first diagnosed everyone just thinks they are going to die,” explained Lauer.
“Your whole life is just taken away from you for a while. You’re powerless.”
After coming through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy successfully it became a passion of Lauer’s to reach out and help others. Even though a nurse and familiar with the health care system she had still found it difficult to navigate and had to dig for information.
As a result she had become involved with the Breast Cancer Foundation and with the Cancer Society and had attended several conferences.
It was at one such conference where Lauer first heard that women who had survived breast cancer were becoming involved in the sport of dragon boating.
It was a real positive way for them to raise awareness of the disease while at the same time showing others that life does not end with a cancer diagnosis.
Lauer decided it was important to start a dragon boat team locally.
With the help of another survivor, she put out information inviting breast cancer survivors to a meeting.
Twenty people showed up, enough to start a team.
The group started fundraising and found sponsorship, formed a non-profit society, acquired a boat, a coach and started training.
Today, after 14 years of competing they have many medals to show for their efforts. They compete at one or two dragon boat festivals per year, with the festival in Penticton being one of the largest in B.C.
“It’s just the most amazing thing to see these women come out and join the dragon boat team. They are kind of vulnerable when they first join and they become the strongest of women, just unbelievably empowered,” Lauer said.
“The thing that is really neat too, is that these women are from such different walks of life. These are not people whose paths would have crossed otherwise and most of them are not athletes. They become such good friends and they have all become healthier. Fitness is a huge part of this.”
While the team has many of the original members still paddling, some others are not.
“We haven’t had a lot of people come and go. They don’t usually leave the team; they stay with it,” said Lauer.
“We have had 12 deaths though, women who started with us and have passed away.”
It is the camaraderie that the team has that is so inspiring to themselves and to others. While they seldom speak of cancer when together, they are a “floating support group” to one another during difficult times.
Lauer encourages other breast cancer survivors to join the team and she emphasized that people of all ages and physical abilities are welcome.
While there is a membership fee, no one is turned away because of a lack of funds. The team meets and paddles for one and a half hours, three times per week on Skaha Lake.
Giving back is also a fundamental part of this teams’ mandate. They have committed to giving ten per cent of monies raised each year to local breast cancer initiatives.
Of the $25,000 they have given out over the many years, much of it has gone to the Penticton Hospital and its mammography department.
The survivorship team has also spawned a volunteer driven support program called Tomorrow’s Hope, for people diagnosed with breast cancer.
Volunteers provide confidential support, both emotional and informational to anyone diagnosed with breast cancer.
It may be surprising to hear, but Lauer says that having breast cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to her. It brought a new kind of awareness to her life.
“It made me have another look at my life,” she said. “Things you think are important are not important.”
For more information visit www.survivorshipteam.ca and www.tomorrowshope.ca.