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Where It All Began

Where it all began

Breast cancer survivor dragon boat paddling began at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada in 1996. Dr. Don McKenzie, a Professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and an exercise physiologist, challenged the prevailing medical thinking that women treated for breast cancer should avoid rigorous upper body exercise for fear of developing lymphedema, a debilitating and chronic side effect of treatment.

Dr. McKenzie developed a program to determine the impact of exercise on breast cancer survivors, choosing dragon boat paddling as the epitome of strenuous, repetitive upper body exercise. He trained twenty-four breast cancer volunteers in a gym for three months, introduced them to dragon boats and taught them paddling techniques. At the end of the three-month season on the water none of the volunteers had lymphedema. Not only that, survivors found they were fitter, healthier and happier. They loved the camaraderie and support of their fellow paddlers.

Since then the movement progressed first in Canada and then the World. Globally there are thousands of breast cancer teams paddling to improve their health. A global organisation soon followed, the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC). Their mission is to encourage the establishment of breast cancer dragon boat teams, within the framework of participation and inclusiveness. They support the development of recreational dragon boat paddling as a contribution to a healthy lifestyle for those diagnosed with breast cancer.

Thousands of survivors have seen a direct improvement in their health along with new friendships that span countries. Every four years a global celebration is held to bring teams together to celebrate the joy of paddling, friendship and increase the awareness of breast cancer.

The first Festival was in Canada in 2005 with Australia proudly hosting the next one in 2007. Since then paddlers have participated in Festivals in Peterborough (Canada) 2010, Sarasota (Florida USA) 2014 and Florence (Italy) 2018. New Zealand will be hosting the next Festival in 2022. Each Festival provides breast cancer survivors with the opportunity to network, attend workshops, paddle and celebrate life!

What about Australia?

Dragons Abreast Australia originated in the Northern Territory (NT). It started when a group of Territory women attended the First National Breast Cancer Conference for Women, in October 1998. Michelle Hanton OAM, the founder of Dragons Abreast Australia, attended this conference. As part of one of the presentations, a Canadian speaker happened to mention that breast cancer survivors in Canada paddled dragon boats. Inspired, Michelle returned to Darwin determined to round up a group of paddlers!

In December 1998, the first survivor paddlers took to the water at a fun day hosted by Dragon Boat NT. They were filmed by SBS Television for a program called Tutti and had their first taste of media fame as this program was shown around South East Asia. The Australian Capital Territory followed in early 1999 led by Anna Wellings-Booth, then Brisbane in the same year with Janelle Gamble. From a small beginning at Lake Alexander in the NT, the movement has spread across Australia.

What is dragon boat paddling?

If you would like to know about the sport of dragon boat paddling visit the Australian Dragon Boating Federation (AusDBF) website at

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