Why Breast Cancer Survivors Should Dragon Boat

By: Lindsay Davey, MScPT, MSc, CDT
July 27, 2012
Editors: Ryan Davey, PhD and Lindsay Davey, MScPT, MSc, CDT

Dragon boat racing for breast cancer has become an international phenomenon. Since the first boat of breast cancer survivors began paddling at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 1996, breast cancer teams have taken up paddles in countries all over the world.  With international meets happening regularly (the next is in Florida in October, 2014), a connection between breast cancer and dragon boat racing is forming in our collective consciousness.  An international breast cancer dragon boat team called “International Abreast” was even included in the 1,000-boat pageant on the Thames River for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee this past June.

But why is there a connection between a 2000 year old Chinese tradition and breast cancer in the first place?

The first breast cancer dragon boat team was established as part of a small research project at the UBC to evaluate the once widely-held belief that vigorous and repetitive upper body exercise can promote the development of lymphedema in people treated for breast cancer – a population already at significant risk for the condition as a result of lymph node surgical removal or irradiation.  Although up to 30% of all women with breast cancer will eventually go on to develop Lymphedema, this small case study was one of the first to provide quantitative evidence suggesting that dragon boat racing and other vigorous upper-body exercise are actually safe activities (Harris, S.R., et al. J Surg Oncol. 2000 Jun;74(2):95-8).  This liberating conclusion, combined with the spirit and organization efforts of the first “Abreast in a Boat” dragon boat team, formed the link between dragon boat racing and breast cancer.

An entertaining review article published this past May (Harris, S.R. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2012:167651) explores the collection of scientific research on the benefits of dragon boat racing for breast cancer survivors, research spawned by that first UBC study.  Not only is dragon boat racing (and other forms of upper body exercise) safe for individuals treated for breast cancer, it has been shown to have a positive impact on both physical and psychosocial outcomes in patients. Indeed, exercise is now regarded as a valuable complementary therapy for breast cancer.  But do you really need to get into a Dragon Boat?

According to Harris, Dragon Boating may represent a particularly enriching complementary therapy:

“The universal joy of participating in dragon boating, as witnessed by participant quotes from the qualitative studies…, lends further support to the importance of making all women who have been treated for breast cancer aware of this wonderful recreational opportunity”.

If you’re interested in getting involved, check out Toronto’s Dragons Abreast team. As they say in dragon boating: “All-up!”


  1. Colleen Miller Colleen Miller says:

    I am a 63 year old women and I’m a breast cancer survivor.  I had always been interested in joining your team with Dragon boat racing. 
    Please send me information.
    Thank you.

    • Hello Colleen,
      Thank you for your post. Unfortunately, we do not have a Dragon Boat team (we are a physiotherapy clinic specializing in breast cancer related physiotherapy needs and lymphedema care), but the Toronto organization I know of is Dragons Abreast (www.dragonsabreast.ca). I hope that helps connect you! Best, Lindsay Davey

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