Balancing Health and Competition is Vital - Dr Don McKenzie

Excerpt from  Dragon Sport News - emagazine April 2016 Spring Edition

By Dr Don McKenzie, Vancouver, Canada

There is no such thing as a 'bad day' in my world. If things get busy, complicated or uncomfortable I just take a look at a card or letter received from a paddler who explains what a treat it is to be alive and leading a full, active life after breast cancer. That puts everything into the proper perspective and the world begins to turn once again.

In the first year or two, most of the correspondence was about recovering from the disease, gaining control of your life through paddling and the impact the program had on families, friends and loved ones.

Many of the letters were very personal and it was a privilege to read them. Gradually the messages began to focus on the sport, the dragon boat races themselves. I learned how teams were training, how to build a dragon boat, comments on technique and how a particular crew had won a race, collected several medals or were preparing to compete in local or international regattas . The shift from health to competition had begun.

Twenty years after we started, there are still lots of places that are just beginning a programme in breast cancer dragon boat paddling. Although there are countries where exercise for cancer patients is still frowned upon, many locations in Europe have discovered this paddling program and are rapidly adapting to it.

In 2015, at a test event for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, I met with Dr. Christina May Moran de Brito, a physiatrist from Sao Paolo, Brazil. She has started a rowing programme for cancer patients and is very keen on expanding to dragon boats, once they are more readily available.

Christina, along with Adriana Bartoli from Canada are set on developing programmes for women in Brazil and Argentina. Special women indeed.

With these new teams many of the same questions that were asked 20 years ago are still relevant. In each case it still appears the original focus is on recovery from the disease, avoiding lymphedema and regaining control of your life.

An overriding goal is safety; exercise and cancer is still a foreign place to go, at least initially. Once confidence in the programme is developed, myths dispelled and a positive outcome in terms of health and lifestyle is achieved, then the competitive spirit comes into play.

This is completely understandable, a natural evolution, but serving two masters creates conflict and proper perspective is important.

As your team evolves and competition may become the focus, realize that you may be creating a barrier for the new survivor who looks to you for help in getting away from the spectrum of breast cancer.

There is a need to achieve a balance between health and competition. The take home message- respect your roots and remember why you started this programme in the first place. 

Dr Don McKenzie is the founding doctor of the breast cancer dragon boat movement which began in Vancouver, Canada in 1996.

After the success of that first year Don continues his research on exercise and breast cancer. Today there are breast cancer dragon boat teams on 16 countries thanks to his efforts and those of many others, including the IBCPC.  

Not only does Don work with breast cancer paddlers all around the world he is also a member of the Medical Committees of the International Canoe Federation (ICF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and was formerly the Chairman of the International Dragon Boat Federation Medical Commission (IDBF). He has been physician to the Canadian National Canoe Team since 1981 and has attended each summer Olympics since 1984.

Dr Don writes a regular column for the IBCPC Newsletter and you can submit questions to him by emailing 



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