Cancer survivors paddle for strength

Hundreds of pink carnations swayed slowly in time to the music as breast cancer survivors remembered those who did not.

Shirley Boven (right) and teammate Barb Weisbrot (centre) of Edmonton wave their carnations during the special ceremony on the final day of the Raymond James Dragon Boat Festival at Skaha Lake. About 2

Shirley Boven (right) and teammate Barb Weisbrot (centre) of Edmonton wave their carnations during the special ceremony on the final day of the Raymond James Dragon Boat Festival at Skaha Lake. About 2

Hundreds of pink carnations swayed slowly in time to the music as breast cancer survivors remembered those who did not.

The tears flowed freely from the eyes of many of the women sitting in the boats and those family and friends gathered on the shore during the carnation ceremony on the final day of the Raymond James Dragon Boat Festival. Playing in the background was Martina McBride’s song, I’ll Love You Through This which included the poignant lyrics of the first two lines of the chorus:

When you’re weak, I’ll be strong

When you let go, I’ll hold on

“What an impact and what a lot of tears. I think this (song) was something that very much hits home for a lot of people,” said Penticton Survivorship president and  breast cancer survivor Claire Waterman afterwards. “It really goes to  show you don’t go through this alone, that we have the support of our family and friends.”

As they do each year, at the end of the song and the remembrance service the carnations were tossed into the shallow waters off the shore of Skaha Lake.

At that point the tears were wiped away and the smiles returned as the women in pink hugged and made their way up the beach beneath the lengthening line of raised paddles.

“It is because of that ceremony that a lot of breast cancer teams come here every year,” said Waterman, who has twice been diagnosed with the horrible disease. “I think for everyone it is a reminder of why we do this and what this is really all about.”

Her coach and event organizer Don Mulhall agreed, adding the raw emotion it invokes can be overwhelming.

“It’s just an incredibly moving ceremony,” he said as teams cheered on each other in the background. “I love that these women recognize those who have fought and won or lost the battle. It’s a highlight but I have to stay away from it because I’m the coach, I’m supposed to be the tough guy.”

He added the mirrored sunglasses do more than simply protect his eyes from the glare on the water.

Barb Weisbrot of Edmonton was another survivor who believes there is strength in numbers and loves the Penticton festival for that reason alone.

“We’ve all had breast cancer. We’re all survivors and it just shows that we can be strong and lead active lives and breast cancer does not get us down,” she said.

She added that’s why when they part with old and new friends at the end of the event the phrase, ‘see you next year, is a promise not a farewell.

“We want to show people that we’re coming back, we’re not down and out, we’re strong women,” said Weisbrot.

Fellow racer Angela Jackson of Calgary agreed: “I don’t know but it just seems like saying ‘goodbye’ is just too much of a finality. I guess in the back of your mind you know there will be some familiar faces missing but you can’t dwell on that.”

This year’s turn out of an estimated 2,700 paddlers from all parts of B.C. and Alberta was encouraging to Mulhall. Nearly 100 teams took part and is the 12th competition since the festival began. The organizer stressed the importance of the event for women but noted there are many mixed teams and he would like to see more men participating in the future. Plans are already in the works for the 2013 version of the festival and all indications are it will be one of the best ever with many happy returns.