By: Anne Cahill, KAB member

My story begins when I was diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia CML in June of 2016. I had just started a daily oral chemotherapy when I received the dreaded “call back” after my regular mammogram and was diagnosed with Breast Cancer as well. I had a lumpectomy and luckily did not require a separate chemotherapy.  I weighed the pros and cons with respect to my ongoing CML treatment and “opted out” of the standard course of radiation.  At that point I decided that the medical team had done their job and it was now My job to get moving, get in shape and show cancer who was Boss!

I had heard about the Knot A Breast breast cancer survivor dragon boat team and their accomplishments but was hesitant to reach out. I called Geri, the new membership co-ordinator, and got some information about the team and how to join but didn’t follow through. I just wasn’t confident that I could do it! Even though I had been athletic in my younger years and loved playing sports, I was intimidated to try a new sport that I had no background in.  Was I too old to learn a new sport? Was I too physically-depleted from cancer treatment to join this team?

The idea of dragon boating continued to ruminate in my mind as I got stronger and healthier in 2018.  I started walking, golfing and playing pickle ball.  My husband and I joined a gym.  A year later, I was able to put my reservations aside and made that second call. The rest is history in the making!

I have come a long way since that first race nearly two years ago! It was months before I understood the nuances of “the start” and it will take me a long time and much practice to do it well.  I am beginning to understand how important fitness and training is as I continue in my journey as a dragon boat athlete. As Coach Kathy Levy lovingly puts it, “I am a work in progress”.

Knot A Breast at the start line in Lane 4 (second from left) at Hamilton Waterfest, 2019: Anne’s first race (photo credit Sandman)
The 2018 Newbies at their first race in 2019: Anne Cahill is fifth from left  

All new members compete in one race their first season.  I will never forget that day we got into the boat for our first competition at Hamilton Waterfest in July, 2019.  I had only graduated from the safety boat, where I watched the team practice, to being in the dragon boat paddling weeks earlier.  What seemed not so difficult from a safe distance was much more demanding once seated, hip to gunnel,  paddle in hand. I had just barely figured out what side I would paddle on and here it was Race Day! It was so emotional, I had tears in my eyes as I got in the boat and was thankful for the sunglasses I was wearing.  The enormity of how far I had come, and how I never gave up, came to me all at once. These reflections were quickly replaced by nervousness as we made our way out to the starting line. The race was both scary and electrifying! “Scary” because I forgot to keep my head up and missed my stroke and “electrifying” because we did it, we crossed the finish line! 

Anne Cahill’s husband, Laurie, was proud of her after first race 2019

After the boats were put away for the season in 2019, this retiree headed to Florida and was fortunate to paddle with a team there for several months. It was amazing to get out on the water again! Paddling with alligators watching from the shallows and having the occasional dolphin race with us really made for a different experience! We enjoyed lots of golfing, and I took out a membership at a local gym in order to maintain and increase my fitness level. When home for the holidays that year I was able to work out with Knot a Breast in Welland for several weeks doing circuit training and paddling in “the tank” (See Knot A Blog: KAB Members in The Tank). It is a large pool with running water that simulates being on a moving body of water like a lake. You really have to experience it to understand! Incredible!

Anne training in Florida winter 2019/2020: Anne smiling at camera

In January 2020, I was back in the sunny south, still working out, still paddling with the team there, golfing, playing pickle ball and staying connected with my team and their fitness plans. Excitement was mounting and everyone was looking forward to what they 2020 season was going to bring. Who would have thought it would bring a global pandemic that would overwhelm our healthcare system, have us isolated from those we love, close our borders and cancel our whole season?  

We were wintering in Florida, somewhat oblivious of what was going on throughout the world, as Florida remained “business as usual”.  It was at the urging of our daughter, the Prime Minister and coach Kathy to come home early that made us quickly change our plans and return to Canada in March just in time to see borders close! Now safely back at home,  I watched from my window as spring ran into summer, and then summer into fall in what felt like the movie “Groundhog Day”.  I developed a daily routine of: Get up, check the news, walk, read, make meals, and clean up.  I did this all while anxiously waiting for an announcement of a vaccine that would help us to return to the people and places and activities we loved!

Pre-pandemic our team was made up of two groups: “Newbies” and “Vets”.  “Newbies” are team members that had joined that year.  Their full integration into the team starts with the Newbie race.  That is the initiation and introduction into dragon boat racing! After that event, team members are considered “Vets”. However, it is not until the next season that members participate in the full card of races and truly feel enmeshed with the team.  There has always been this yearly cycle of Newbies and Vets within our team. 

The pandemic has definitely created some grey areas in this normally stream-lined process.  We now have “Pro-Newbies”: women who joined in winter 2020, who have been participating in training, but have NOT actually gotten into our dragon boat.  They are like “Super-Newbies” with lots of fitness training but no practical experience! They have been bumped as “Newbies” by the women who have joined this winter 2021. Both groups of women are hungry and eager to get a taste of what dragon boating truly feels like, to get the thrill that the seasoned members have when they talk about the joys of dragon boating.

With this pandemic pause in mind, I now affectionately refer to the women who joined with me in 2019 as the “Pre-Pro-Newbies”.  We are the women who got that “little taste” from competing in our first race.  We did a lot of training in the boat that season, before and afterwards, and were excited and anxious to see how our training and commitment translated on the water! That “taste” meant we actually know what we are missing! And so for our group, it has felt like “paddling purgatory”, where we didn’t quite make it to the place of sharing stories of big races and training camps, but we are not brand new team members either. Our mettle is anxiously waiting to be really tested!

The vaccines started arriving here in Canada at the start of 2021, and as we approach summer 2021 we are hopeful to all get the promised “jabs” that will hopefully allow us to resume our normal activities. Recently, I was very fortunate to receive my second jab because of my blood disorder and am now fully vaccinated! It was definitely a Happy Day! I am looking forward to the day we are all vaccinated and paddling together as a team. For this “Pre-Pro-Newbie” it feels a bit like starting over. However, it is very reassuring to know that I am in very good company!

By Norma Moores and Carrie Brooks-Joiner, KAB members

The Knot A Breast breast cancer survivor dragon boat team was formed in 1998. The team is now 23 years old and has been represented by a logo of a cute dragon head with a pink ribbon around its neck and Knot A Breast spelled out below it in a rope-like font. This logo was created by Hamilton artist, Conrad Furey, married to coach Kathy Levy’s cousin.

Knot A Breast’s original logo by Conrad Furey

Conrad was born in Newfoundland in 1954 and settled in Hamilton in 1974. He passed away from colon cancer in 2008. Conrad was very fond of Knot A Breast. One of his paintings depicts a dragon boat team and hangs on the ground floor in the Medical Arts Building at 1 Young Street, Hamilton. He created the original logo after talking to the entire original team.

Example of Conrad Furey’s art, Medical Arts Building, 1 Young Street, Hamilton

After 23 years, though, it was time to update the logo while reflecting on the legacy of the original logo and the future of the KAB team. A Visual Identity Project Committee was formed to develop a new logo and team shirts with members Carrie Brooks-Joiner, Michelle Sandrasagra and Milka Vujnovic. After consulting with the Board of Directors, they felt the new logo should reflect a team that is:

  • Strong
  • Fast
  • Powerful
  • Competitive
  • A cohesive team

The new logo needed to be visually striking, a strong purple colour, include a dragon head and the team’s name, Knot a Breast, transferable to multiple formats and uses, and have longevity, just like the original logo.

Hamilton artist, Heidi Hoffmann, owner and founder of Imagine Media  (Facebook, Instagram), Hamilton, and a friend of KAB member Milka Vujnovic, was engaged to create the new logo. Imagine Media is a marketing agency that pushes the boundaries of creativity. They specialize in digital marketing, website design, branding development, and social media.

Knot A Breast’s new logo is the head of a dark purple dragon breathing red fire. It comes in the primary format with the team name, a version with just the dragon head, and a ‘reverse’ white version for printing on team shirts. It was approved by the Board of Directors and presented to the members at the virtual Annual General Meeting on May 21, 2020. We can’t wait to see it on new team jerseys when racing starts again!

Knot A Breast’s new dragon head logo
Knot A Breast’s new reverse logo for printing on dark team clothing

The original and new logos demonstrate that there are many ways to support breast cancer survivors, including creating beautiful logos for us that embody our strength, power and team.

Story 6 of 6

By Marla Iyer and Kristen Winkworth, KAB Members

I remember it was Sunday at the 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival in Florence, Italy. And it was stinking hot. The port-a-potties were marginally better than they had been the day before. I won’t go into detail… you get the picture.

Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team had two races on the last day of the Festival at which 128 teams with over 3,000 people from 28 countries participated. Somehow, by the skin of our teeth, we managed to nose ahead and win this international participatory event!!

Kristen and I were flying home early Monday morning so we had already checked out of the hotel and had brought all our luggage with us to the venue. KAB member, Anna Candelori, had organized a celebratory dinner (win or lose, we raced our best) for after the races. There was no time to taxi back to the hotel so we all piled into the rented bus and drove into downtown Florence for dinner. We were famished. Ristorante Pizzeria was very quaint (as they all are in Italy!). We had a room to ourselves in the basement. I remember it was blessedly air conditioned… and I don’t even like air conditioning! But it was hot. And we had raced all day.  We were still wearing our race clothes. Again, you get the picture.

Three or four long tables had been set up for us and the dishes were brought in and served family style. Yum! Pizza, pasta, all the delicious Italian fare we had enjoyed since we arrived a week earlier. To tell the truth, I can’t remember everything we ate. But the vino was fabulous! Chianti is now my wine of choice.

After speeches and dessert (again… What was it? Maybe just more vino) the rest of the team got back on the bus to the hotel, and Kristen and I started our adventure home. I think it was midnight. We rolled our luggage through the streets and eventually arrived at the train station. There were lots of people still out on the streets, however the train station was deserted. And closed. Odd. Our train was supposed to roll through around 2:30 AM.  We sat beside the tracks on our platform and waited. A few more people arrived, but really, who takes the 2:30 AM train to Venice? Kristen kept watch while I dozed off, only to be awoken by an announcement that our train was delayed. We did eventually catch the train and arrived in Venice with plenty of time to find a way to the airport. Water taxi? I think it might have been!

By the time Kristen’s husband Jim picked us up in Toronto on Monday, we had been travelling for 24 hours and were still wearing our race clothes! I pity the people who sat beside us on the plane… oh wait… that was us beside each other!!

It was quite an adventure and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Story 5 of 6

By Jacqueline Draper, KAB Supporter

“As we begin to pry ourselves loose from old self-concepts, we find that our new emerging self may enjoy all sorts of bizarre adventures.”

Julie Cameron

Standing upon the banks of the Arno River, watching the kaleidoscope of paddlers in colourful team shirts slicing the water in tandem to the dragon boat drums, are the spectators of this world event. There are 128 Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Teams with over 3000 participants from 28 countries in the 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival, Florence, Italy. These teams represent countries from around the world with athletes who have rigorously trained to achieve a spot on the majestic dragon boat. All the toned, muscular arms paddle in synchronization as they coalesce for a global cause while competing under a flag that distinguishes their country. The fierce determination of the athletes and pulsating excitement of the competition encompasses the banks of the Arno River adorned with hundreds of team tents that comprise the athletes’ village in Cascine Park.

The City of Florence is filled with tourists, team supporters, merchants, and local citizens who have lined the streets to honour the dragon boat participants. The colourful team tents are filled with athletes who globally represent breast cancer survivors; each participant has their own personal story. Areas of Florence are adorned in pink in honour of these survivors and a celebratory Pink Parade of Nations kicks off the event along the Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The Arno River is filled with dragon boats representing the global nature of breast cancer honouring all those lost to the disease and all who have survived. It is Sunday, July 8th, 2018, second race day of the IBCPC Festival. Upon the banks of the Arno River are the supportive spectators. I am in the midst of this exuberant crowd and it is from this vantage point and narrative view that I provide my perspective of watching the final races on this memorable day. 

This narration is from the standpoint of a spectator. It represents my conceptualization of the participatory races in Florence with tunnel vision focused on the Knot A Breast (KAB) team. Specifically, my childhood and lifelong best friend is on this team. It is also my mother who predominates this narration. She was a competitive athlete before a tragic car accident changed the course of her life. She was one of the most courageous women I have ever known and had a hearty serving of challenges throughout her life to demonstrate it. My mother passed away from breast cancer when I was thirty-one years old after an aggressive battle, yet it was her strength and fierce determination that is most memorable.  

When my husband and I arrived in Florence for the final race day, we were in awe of the undulating landscape filled with vibrant dragon boat teams, a sea of pink dotting the Arno River. We were on a mission to find our friends. This challenge felt like finding Waldo in the thick crowd of spectators, yet we spotted them photographing Round 3, Race 25 and the Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team racing in Lane 3, their second last race of the festival. As a spectator, this race made my heart pound with the intensity of the final. It included New Zealand, two USA teams, Italy, and Canada’s Knot-A-Breast team who we came to support. We watched the Canadian dragon boat team finish in third place. There was one final race to be run at the 2018 IBCPC Festival; the excitement was palpable and sizzling energy rippled through the crowds on the riverbank.

Before the final race, our friends informed us that KAB now needed to regroup, reframe, refocus, and reinvent themselves through visualization and strict tutelage under the powerful and dynamic Coach Kathy Levy.  I have been told many stories of their exemplary coach, small in stature, yet mighty in presence with a commanding voice and energy that propelled her team to this world event. We did our own visualization that afternoon upon the grassy banks of the Arno River. We mingled with other Knot A Breast spectators, primarily family members and friends of the team.

The team was sheltered away getting pumped up for the final race. We envisioned what ‘getting pumped up by Coach Kathy’ entailed and shared stories about this while we also refueled with water, coffee, and a light snack. Collectively from all the training stories we heard, combined with the professionally respected Coach Kathy, we surmised the strategy would be fine-tuned, balanced, tough, and most of all encouraging. And in fact, it was visualization that helped the team members to reinvent themselves for that final race, along with strategic changes implemented by a stellar coach.

I began this spectator’s narration with a quote from Julie Cameron, “when we pry ourselves loose from old self concepts, we find that our new emerging self may enjoy all sorts of bizarre adventures.” The athletes in this festival, dotting the Arno River in the dragon boats, and watching from under the white-canopied team tents, had pried themselves away from any negative connotations of breast cancer. They envisioned themselves with a different self-image, shredding the negative self-connotations as they transformed into professional athletes.

It is about to begin, the final race with Canada’s Knot A Breast once again in Lane 3. They are competing with four other world teams, two from USA, New Zealand, and Italy’s Florence team. One side of the riverbank is filled with a cornucopia of supporters, while the opposite side is swarmed with participants forming a pink blanket nestled around the Arno River. The spectators are charged with raw emotion. I stand beside my husband, nestled between him and my friend’s son. John squeezes my hand and I observe the emotion in his eyes as the horn blows to begin the race. Everything changes, time morphs and seems to move slowly as the dragon boats blast out of the start-gate. Seconds seem like minutes, or more, when presto, in Lane 3 the KAB boat pushes ahead. A jolt of energy blasts through my body as the crowd roars with excitement. Like a gazelle, I leap over the bodies sitting alongside the river, as I keep my eyes focused on Lane 3, screaming while watching muscled arms pulling the boat further ahead. They are going to win. They are going to win. The nose of the KAB boat is pushing further ahead with a solid lead as it crosses the finish line. I am halfway up the riverbank and want to jump in that boat and hug my dearest and best friend. I realize then that I am far away from where we were standing, so I leap back, pushing through the applauding bodies who block my way.

Hugging, laughing, crying, rejoicing with our family and friends, we form a conglomerate glued together by enormous pride and joy. My friend’s son tells me that watching me leap along the riverbank reminded him of his mother’s energy on steroids! And then the Knot A Breast boat moves towards us as they raise their paddles in glorious victory and point to their supporters, specifically calling out our names. My husband had made an anonymous donation to the team, choosing to bring opportunity and recognition to the team members. Yet at that moment, my friend pointed us out and then placed her hands over her heart while she leaned towards her teammates. It was apparent that she was telling them of his contribution. This act humbled John who stood speechless with tears streaming down his face. Enormous emotions gripped my heart overwhelming me to the point of speechlessness that, for anyone who knows me, is a rare occurrence! And then my friend called out my mother’s name as she pounded her heart over and over again! In that action, I do not think I have ever felt such numb, tingling, raw emotion. Two years later, reflecting upon my experience of the IBCPC Festival in Florence, I am still aware of the magnitude of this event. I felt my mother’s presence in that final, victorious race, and in the grand finale of the flower ceremony. I know she was with me. I also felt tidal waves of emotions and respect for the Knot A Breast team members, supporters, and Coach Kathy.

Story 4 of 6

By Jo-Anne Rogerson and Kim Short, KAB Members

“Your team becomes your family, the paddle becomes your best friend, the boat becomes your home and racing becomes your life.”


This quote from the Paddlechica resonated with Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team as we prepared to participate in the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival in Florence, Italy in 2018. So many considerations. Training, fundraising, travel, time away from work and family. Would we be ready? Could we perform as we had in the two previous IBCPC festivals, placing first at these participatory races?

The IBCPC is an ‘international organization whose mandate is to encourage the establishment of breast cancer dragon boat teams, within the framework of participation and inclusiveness.’ That does not preclude some teams from participating with the intent to perform their very best and competitively race down the course. We proudly wore the Canadian flag on our new uniforms and we came to compete in the biggest breast cancer survivors’ dragon boat festival that had ever taken place in the history of the sport.

We committed to months of intense training, indoors during the winter and outdoors in the spring, training camp in Sarasota FL, including drills and race preparation. Add in an endless number of sit-ups, pushups and cardio workouts, members of Knot A Breast were ready to compete at the IBCPC Participatory Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy.

International festivals for breast cancer survivor dragon boaters began in 2005, in Vancouver, BC, with 61 teams and approximately 1,400 in attendance. In 2007, the paddlers flocked to Caloundra, Australia with 85 teams and 1,800 in attendance. Then on to Peterborough, Ontario, Canada in 2014 with 65 teams and 2,000 in attendance. The IBCPC was formally established at the Peterborough festival and it is a growing international festival held every four years. Knot A Breast was the fastest team in Peterborough and again in Sarasota, Florida in 2014. There were 101 teams and 3,000 in attendance in Sarasota. There were 128 teams from 28 countries in Florence, Italy. There were approximately 3000 participants in the three-day festival along the Arno River.

Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team photo at 2018 IBCPC Festival, Florence, Italy: (left to right) First row: Leslie Williams, Ann Hewitson, Lynn Youngman, Liz Psutka, Helen Shearer, Sharon Hielema, Aleta Thompson, Sharon Richardson, Lorraine Martin, IBCPC Ambassador to KAB Anna-Gloria; Second row: Donna Reise (steersperson), Rebecca Walker, Vivian Medley, Carrie Brooks-Joiner, Michelle Lapointe, Marg Piper, Christine Carey, Anna Candelori, Shida Asmaeil-Yari, Lynda Benison, Nancy Lynn, Kathy Levy (coach), Karen Goldsmith, Nancy Jones; Third row: Geri Schweinbenz, Jo-Anne Rogerson, Tracy McInnis, Kim Short, Judy-Anne Sleep, Kathy Martin, Kristen Winkworth, Vera Fritz, Nancy Hindmarsh; Back row: Carol Myers, Marla Iyer, Kathy MacFarlane, Shelley Lockley, Penny Enos

On Thursday, July 5th, 2018, on our way to the one allotted on-water practice, team members took notice of dozens of signs posted throughout Florence and at the park entrance featuring our incredible, famous coach, Kathy Levy! As we made our way into Cascine Park along the Arno River, excitement mounted as we passed hundreds of team tents already set up in the athletes’ village on our way to find our Knot A Breast tent. The athletes’ village and waterway was a beehive of activity as last minute preparations were taking place including setting up the port-a-potties, the tents, the timing and announcement booth, the vendor area, the marshalling area, and the security fencing. The excitement level was building. We loaded our practice boat and settled into our practice drills.

Coach Kathy and Steersperson, Donna Reise had scouted the race course. One experienced teammate said quietly, “you will experience a wide variety of emotions over the next few days”. Lots of butterflies, extreme heat, and anticipation mixed with anxiety. Kathy started to call commands and we settled into our familiar drills. It felt good to sit in the boat. Afterwards, friends who had not seen us paddle before were heard to remark on how we could paddle so well together and the military precision of our movement as a team. We had put in the time. Now we just had to execute the plan. We had a great (albeit hot) practice.

The Opening Ceremonies held on Friday, July 6th, 2018 was nothing short of spectacular. Areas of Florence were decorated in pink in honour of the Firenze in Rosa event. Teams from around the globe met at the Piazza Pitti to line up for the Pink Parade of Nations. Teams paraded along the Ponte Vecchio Bridge where tourists and team supporters lined the streets as we all walked proudly holding our team flags. The Knot A Breast supporters were easy to find along the parade route dressed smartly in their new KAB purple golf shirts and hats. A few stepped in to join our formation as we made our way to Piazza Signoria.

The array of colours of team jerseys from around the world was astounding, and energy levels were high. A formation of jets did a fly-by releasing a cornucopia of colours in their contrails. After such an exciting day, we needed to rest up and focus for race day. 

1st Race Day, Saturday, July 7th

The first race for Knot A Breast was Race 4 at 9:24 AM. We paddled to the start line never taking our eyes off Coach Kathy sitting on the drum. Deep breaths in and out. Eyes inside the boat. Focus. We have trained for this. We were in lane 3 up against Australia, two teams from the USA, and two teams from Italy.

The announcer calls out “Ready Ready”… and off we go! We came in first place with a time of 2:21.740 (minutes:seconds). 

In between races it was important to eat light, keep hydrated, and move. There was plenty of time to visit with other teams from around the world and to browse (or shop) at the vendors set up in the park. Some of us stayed at our tent and caught a little shut eye!

Heat 2 was at 5:42 PM. Breathe. Focus. Eyes in the boat. Off we go again. We were up against two USA teams, New Zealand, and Italy. This was a very tight race with a first place finish of 2:24.010; the USA Dragon Dream Team placed second at 2:24.270.  Too close!

Day one was over. After a light healthy dinner, we needed to get a good nights’ sleep. Instead of counting sheep, the race pieces floated in our brains over and over again…Hold; Ready Ready; The Start; Race Pace/Middle of the Race; The Finish.  

2nd Race Day, Sunday, July 8th

Family and friends have gathered along the banks of the Arno River. We know they are there, but we cannot cross over the bridge for even a quick visit as the team must stay close together.

Heat 3, Race 25 in Lane 3. Breathe. Focus. Eyes in the boat. Off we go again against New Zealand, two USA teams, and Italy. This certainly wasn’t our best race. It was a close race with first place going to Cansurvive from New Zealand with a time of 2:24.350; 2nd place to USA’s Dragon Dream Team with a time of 2:24.380 and Knot a Breast with a 3rd place finish of 2:24.820. We had some work to do to re-focus before the next race. Visualize. Keep moving. Breathe. Hydrate. Visualize. Keep moving. Breathe. Hydrate.  

Final race, Sunday, July 8th

The time had come for the final race of the 2018 IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival. As we proceed to the marshalling area, one could not help but notice the vast sea of pink t-shirts lining the banks along one side of the Arno River while friends, family and supporters were lining the opposite side. What an incredible sight! Need to stay focused.

Eyes in the boat. Deep breaths in and out.

Over the loud speaker we heard, “LANE 3…C A N A D A  Knot A Breast-A!”, with Italian enthusiasm! We were competing with USA’s Survivors in Sync in Lane 1; New Zealand’s Cansurvive in Lane 2; USA’s Dragon Dream Team in Lane 4 and Italy’s Florence Dragon Ladies in Lane 5.

This race felt different than the others; it felt good…like a machine moving through the water. Our blades knifed and ripped through the water in complete and powerful synchronization. There was a dull roar in our ears as we paddled up the Arno, but we did not know what it was.  Up. Up. Up. Up. Up. And more Up’s (increasing the power and rate of our paddle blades)!!!!

We crossed the finish line not quite sure of the end result, but we all knew it felt strong. And then we get the sign…WE DID IT!! Time 2:20.330. Knot A Breast crossed the finish line ahead of all the other boats.

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Knot A Breast is a successful team. We succeed because we believe that Together Everyone Achieves More:  

  • Beyond our own races, Knot A Breast team members also participated in composite team races joining forces with Cambrèsis Dragon Boat Team from Caudry, France.
  • We were represented by a teammate in the Sandy Smith Global Finale.

Our team succeeds in part because of our supporters, who contribute so much in countless ways. They include:

  • A certified personal trainer, the sister of one of our members, who lead early morning workouts at the hotel. Christine had us all engaged in cardio-based workouts before we ventured out each day. 
  • Dr. David Levy was there every step of the way tending to our physical needs and advising on many levels.
  • The festival provided us with an Ambassador, the lovely Anna Gloria, who gave us useful Firenze tips, snacks, coffee, and the much coveted water and toilet paper in the athletes’ village.
  • Partners and friends who attended in person on the banks of the Arno or watched video coverage from home.

After our final race, once we caught our breath, we paddled up the opposite side of the bank along the Arno. We saw our KAB supporters of family and friends dressed proudly in their purple shirts. The team side of the Arno was populated with a sea of people wearing the IBCPC pink t-shirts. That was when we realized where the roar of cheering came from during the race! What a sight to behold. The feelings of joy, accomplishment and pride were overwhelming. A memory to cherish for a lifetime.

“Never stop trying; never stop believing; never give up and PADDLES UP!”

2018 IBCPC Festival final race with KAB in Lane 3

Story 3 of 6

By Kristen Winkworth, KAB Member

I joined the Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team in the summer of 2017, just after I finished my treatments and I had one more surgery to go that August. The team asked me if I would be interested in joining them the following summer in Florence, Italy for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival. My husband, Jim, and I discussed it for about 5 minutes. We decided that it would be an amazing opportunity for me to travel with the team and support our teammates as they raced.

At the beginning of 2018, I was nominated by our Knot A Breast executive to represent KAB as a Canadian paddler in the Sandy Smith Global Finale at the IBCPC Festival. I’ll be honest, when I was given this news, I cried and was filled with emotion. I was extremely honoured and very excited to be given this opportunity — especially as a ‘newbie’ —to participate in this important finale. I didn’t expect this.

I did my research ahead of time, because I wanted to know about Sandy Smith. I learned that she was an important woman and as I read more about her life, it further impacted my participation in this event. I read that the Sandy Smith Global Finale is an important tradition at all IBCPC festivals. The finale represents the global nature of breast cancer and it honours Sandy for the extensive work that she did to help new teams in the early years.

It was the most incredible experience! I was in a boat with teammates from around the world and this was truly amazing! There was a language barrier for many of us, but that didn’t matter. We sat in the boat, we smiled, chatted, laughed, hugged and cried together. We had an instant bond and we understood each other’s mixed emotions. There were women from Denmark, Argentina, Germany, Australia, U.S.A. and Canada in our boat. My seat-mate was from Australia and we spent time chatting and getting to know each other, and exchanged emails.

When Sandy’s husband and children spoke prior to the race, I felt a connection to them, having lost my own mother to breast cancer. I could hear in their voices how proud they were of their mom, just as I was of mine. As we paddled, I was paddling in memory of Sandy, a special women who was instrumental in helping to start dragon boat teams for breast cancer survivors in a variety of countries.

After the race, we remained in the boats for the Flower Ceremony, which was very emotional too. Hundreds of gerbera daisies with fuchsia petals were released into the river. The stemmed daisies adorned the river water representing all individuals lost to breast cancer, remembered and revered by those who witness this heart-moving event. The camaraderie of so many people from different countries coming together, all with a connection to each other was priceless. This was the beginning of healing for me in my journey, and it was the beginning of when I started to live my life again — living in the present moment and appreciating the simple things in life. I was able to finally let go of the emotional toll that had consumed my life since my diagnosis, throughout my surgeries and treatments while re-living my Mom’s journey. KAB has played an important role in this turning point in my life as well—helping me to see that there is life beyond breast cancer and that cancer doesn’t define me.

I am so grateful and I feel very honoured to have been part of this incredible experience! I will always treasure the special memories from the Sandy Smith Global Finale. For me, this was a very special role at the 2018 IBCPC Festival in Florence, Italy and I will always be grateful to Knot A Breast for giving me this opportunity. When I returned from Italy and my family and friends asked me about my experience, my first response was, “it’s about the people.” I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world!

Who was Sandy Smith?

Sandy Smith joined the first Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team, Abreast In A Boat, in Vancouver in its second year in 1997. Dr. Don McKenzie, who started the team for women with a history of breast cancer, recalls saying, “Well, if you want to look at how it’s supposed to be done on the water, have a look at Sandy Smith.”

As more Dragon Boat Breast Cancer Survivor Teams were springing up in Victoria and Montreal, and more women from around the world were reaching out about forming their own teams, Sandy enthusiastically stepped up to help them out. Sandy became the first Global Liaison, spreading the sport — and the message that breast cancer survivors can exercise — around the world.

In 2002, Sandy died from recurring breast cancer. In 2005, the first International Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat festival was held in Vancouver. Smith’s teammates came up with a plan to honour her with a special race: instead of pitting teams from around the world against each other, all the boats would be made up of paddlers from different teams and countries. The Sandy Smith Global Finale is held at all the international festivals, including the 2018 festival in Florence, Italy.

Story 2 of 6

By Shida Asmaeil-Yari, KAB Member

When I think back to 2018 International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) Festival in Florence, Italy, I have fond memories while being there. Just being able to participate as a paddler was amazing. How many people can say that they paddled on the Arno River?

I was on a ‘composite team’ with some of our Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat (KAB) teammates. The composite teams consist of members from more than one Breast Cancer Survivor dragon boat team that come together just to race at the festival, because they do not have enough members from one team going to make up a full 20 racers in a boat. I really didn’t know what to expect while paddling with another team.

At the first practice we were introduced to a team from a very small town in France, Cambrèsis Dragon Boat Team from Caudry. They didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak French. However, we somehow communicated. Since we as KAB had more experience, the women from France followed everything we did while racing. The French team was very grateful for having us in their boat.

We noticed during practice that this team was very new at dragon boating, but they had so much fun just paddling.  I have always been competitive and also think everyone on KAB has a competitive streak. I realized while paddling with this team to just have fun; winning isn’t important. Having said this, we did win one of our races and the smiles on the French team were priceless. The France paddlers were so ecstatic to win their first ever race. They kept saying, “We love Canada!” and they hugged us tight.

When we got off at the dock I saw our KAB coach, Kathy Levy, with a big smile on her face. She was so proud of us not because we won a race but for being so helpful to these women. I came to the realization how fortunate we are as KAB to have a coach like Kathy. She might work us harder, but it all pays off in the end. She has taught us no matter how many races we win to always be humble.

Knot A Breast and Cambrèsis composite dragon boat team winning in Lane 3

Story 1 of 6

By Helen Shearer, KAB Member and Co-Chair IBCPC 2018 Registration Committee

Travelling to different places with Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat Team over the years has been a great source of pleasure and enjoyment for me. I have had the privilege to go to some truly unbelievable dragon boat festivals not only in Ontario, but also elsewhere in Canada from the east coast to the west coast, as well as Florida, Berlin, and Florence! Without a doubt the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission (IBCPC) festivals are among the largest for Breast Cancer Survivor teams around the world. They are emotional, supportive, and inspirational events for Breast Cancer Survivors to attend. Officially, it is non-competitive, considered a participatory and celebratory event. But I have always thought that if organizers time the races… it is competitive!

With my Co-Chair, Shelley Lockley, for the 2018 IBCPC Festival in Florence, Italy, we were involved in the registration of our team, a unique experience that had its challenges… but nothing we couldn’t handle by grumbling to the event organizers who were most helpful even with a seven-hour time difference.  It was a big learning curve dealing with currency exchange, banking fees, payment deadlines, hotel choices, T-shirt sizing, as well as making decisions on accommodations for our team members. Using the list provided by IBCPC we based our choice on price, special event bus shuttles to and from the venue, and team members on a budget. We also didn’t want our team spread out in different hotel locations, preferring to stay together as a team! We are a team family, including supporters who travelled with us. Our final choice was comfortable, clean and reasonably priced. We were disappointed to learn when we arrived on site at registration that shuttles would not be provided for our chosen hotel… disappointing to say the least. Everyone managed by working together to take cabs, sharing the cost for getting around Florence. Besides, we only ate and slept at the hotel, which, by the way, had wonderful meals.

We were blessed with beautiful weather, hovering around 31 to 33 degrees C most days.  As a team we practice in similar temperatures in the month of July, Ontario’s hottest month. During the festival we had time to watch Breast Cancer Survivor (BCS) teams paddling up and down the Arno River powering to the finish line and doing their best!

The event organizers arranged a “team ambassador” for each BCS team who was our liaison person for help with language issues, restaurant recommendations, as well as places to visit throughout our stay.  Team Knot A Breast was fortunate to have a wonderful women, Anna-Gloria, as our ambassador.  She was extremely outgoing, friendly, warm, and inviting, and learned to love Breast Cancer Survivor dragon boating with a winning team! 

During our very warm racing days, water to drink was difficult to get, the water fountains were slow with warm water and long line-ups. There were no large grocery stores like we have in Canada. Fortunately for us, Anna-Gloria was well connected, arriving on a few occasions with much needed cold bottles of water and nutritional snacks in a large suitcase. Gloria’s help was much appreciated and well received; she was truly our Florence connection. 

Gloria arranged for our team to attend an evening at her Tuscany villa for a ‘rock concert’, with transportation, meal and refreshments. The evening was fantastic!

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We got to meet the band members as well as dance the evening away. One person who stood out especially with Knot A Breast in attendance was the part-time guitarist.  His full-time job was as a surgeon… a breast cancer surgeon! It was a fantastic evening to remember in the Tuscany hills. 

Our trip ended with a wonderful celebration dinner arranged by KAB member, Anna Candelori. We didn’t know how successful we would be so with two first-place wins for KAB, what a party it was! We gave it our all and it was a sweet win to end the festival and truly a trip of a lifetime full of many memories.

By Carrie Brooks-Joiner, KAB member

When I was a kid, the only person I knew with a tattoo was my Great Uncle Harold. It was on his upper arm and its original sharpness and colour had long faded. I never knew what it represented, and I didn’t dare to ask him. I only ever knew it had something to do with the war and that my mother disapproved.  To me, it represented a combination of badass and what I could only assume was youthful regret.

At eighteen, my youngest daughter announced she was going to get a tattoo on her inner forearm. She didn’t need my approval, but I certainly let her know I did not approve. My concern about the permanence was to her the whole point of getting one.

Val and daughter's tattoos
Val and her daughter’s matching dragon tattoos
My daughter and I got matching tattoos for my 50th Birthday – a dragon and pink ribbon. I was diagnosed at age 44, joined the Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team the next year. At that time, the team was just finding themselves. We broke the 3 minute mark for a race – that was an exciting race (we have come a long way since then). I guess you could say these were our first glory days of racing.
My personal life not so hot: our parents were getting up there; my Dad passed away the month before by 50th birthday. My daughter suggested we do something fun – get matching tattoos. I have never regretted getting the tattoo. I actually forget I have it most times.
P.S.: We made the tattoo artist make the dragon happy, not scary, so it is not exactly like the KAB dragon.

It seemed that overnight tattoo culture was everywhere. It was the subject of reality TV shows, produced a raft of tattoo artist stars, and provided fodder for Instagram. Several of my friends celebrated birthdays, vacations and milestones by getting “inked”. I didn’t get the allure, and the permanent inking of skin seemed slightly repulsive to me. I swore I would never get a tattoo, but cancer made a liar out of me.

It never occurred to me that tattoos would be used to map the boundaries of my radiation treatment zone. Four small green dots, inked clumsily by a radiation technician, were my initiation into tattoo culture. The dots, the size of freckles, remind me of the first points of an incomplete dot-to-dot game of my youth and the picture isn’t revealed until all the dots are joined by lines drawn in sequential order. But my dot tattoos were neither interesting, artistic nor meaningful in a positive way. They did, however, give me bragging rights and all of a sudden I had more tattoos than anyone I knew.  

Milka's ribbon tattoo on her shoulder
Milka’s ribbon tattoo
I had started to think about getting a tattoo well before my breast cancer diagnosis. I could never find anything meaningful enough to warrant the pain and the permanency of a tattoo. My life changed drastically after breast cancer and not just in a negative way. I became stronger, lost a lot of weight, joined Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team, and started along the road to become fitter and healthier than I have ever been. There was a new me and I thought, OK, time for that tattoo to celebrate this new person. 
I was never really enamoured with the pink ribbon or the fact that it was a survivor symbol. I don’t feel like a survivor. It feels like it should be more of a thriver symbol. I didn’t just survive, I thrived and I knew I wanted to have a mark on my body to symbolize that, a visible mark on a very strong part of my body, my shoulder!
The foundation is the ribbon but the colour is not the traditional pink, nor is the shape, feel or flow. It’s a whimsical brush stroke, with a flowy form and movement that symbolizes for me that I have thrived and grown into someone who is healthy and strong. And it makes me smile every time I see it! It doesn’t make me think of cancer. It symbolizes for me that I have flourished into someone who is strong, powerful and a little bit artsy!

Now with the link between tattoos and cancer firmly in my mind, I began to notice that breast cancer has its own tattoo culture. As I moved through stages of treatment in search of the new normal, I became aware of how embedded tattoos are in the breast cancer community. Apart from the unwanted radiation tattoos that many of us do our best to ignore, there are also celebratory tattoos that are chosen deliberately and worn proudly, rallying tattoos that are badges of the battle and the fight, images that note the belonging of the breast cancer survivor “club”, and, sadly, memorial tattoos worn by friends and family.

A year after my mastectomy I became interested in the post-surgery tattoos: ones to hide mastectomy and reconstructions scars and others that create the illusion of a three-dimensional nipple on a reconstructed breast. It was the scar-hiding tattoos that initially fascinated me the most. The program (Personal Ink, a North American program that provides “tattoo inspiration” to breast cancer survivors) shares images of how artists use a scarred chest as a canvas for sweeping florals, exquisite birds, and complex graphics. They promote beautiful, empowering designs as a way for women to reclaim their bodies after breast cancer and not allow it to leave the “last mark”.

Ann's survivor and pink ribbon tattoo
Ann’s pink ribbon tattoo
I had the ‘pink ribbon’ done about 5 years after being diagnosed. I had already been part of Knot A Breast Dragon Boat Team for a couple of seasons. It was one way that I could state that I was a Breast Cancer Survivor. When I made the choice to have a tattoo, I asked a girlfriend to come with me to be my support. We went for a couple of glasses of wine after. I chose to put it on my ankle because it was in the open for anyone to see – yet subtle.

I had never seen a mastectomy scar until I viewed my own. As much as I admired the artistry of the elaborate tattoos, I didn’t have a need or desire to hide my mastectomy scar. With a length of 7 inches, it would take a large tattoo to hide it. I wasn’t interested in anything that substantial or that would show when I am dressed. 

With thoughts of hiding the scar out the window, I increasingly became intrigued by the idea of “owning” my scar and how a tattoo might enhance that concept. The scar is a long, thin imperfect line that starts at my sternum and ends under my armpit. I played with the idea of the line as a wire and imagined small birds on it (Leonard Cohen in my ears) or turning it into telephone wires with poles. A string? Not vertical enough for a kite. A tail? No rodents or creatures on this chest. Eventually, I got back to the idea of the scar as a former wound. I like sewing and imagined a needle and thread with large stitches across the scar just like the mending of a tear in clothing. Too cliché. A zipper? No, that was a scar cover and I’d decided against hiding it. I thought I had it with the idea of tattooed staples but in the end, decided that it was too Frankenstein. I was getting nowhere, and the months were passing by. After much research and reference checking, I had selected a tattoo artist, but I still didn’t know what I wanted in a tattoo.

Ann's dragonfly tattoo
Ann’s dragonfly tattoo
From KAB’s Website: It is said that a dragonfly represents the spirit of a team member no longer with us; they rest, ever so gently with glistening wings, on the shoulder of the paddlers to give them strength as they race down the course. They symbolize hope, grace and strength. Often, dragonflies will glide over the paddles as the team waits for the starting horn to blow. It brings a bittersweet smile to their faces, encouraging them to do their best.
A couple of years after my ‘Pink Ribbon’ tattoo, a teammate asked me to be her supporter when she got her first tattoo. While she was getting her dragonfly done, I made the decision to have a smaller version tattooed on my wrist. Now, understanding the meaning that the dragonfly has to Breast Cancer Survivors, it was an easy choice.

I went back to basics: the scar was not to be hidden; it was to be a (former) wound rather than turned into something else; it needed to be a personally meaningful message. One day it came to me: safety pins. Safety pins fix things. They reinforce. They add strength where there is weakness. Even though my cancer-laden breast is gone, and the scar is healed, there is a risk of recurrence. Safety pins. Perfect.

Carrie's 3 safety pins on her mastectomy scar
Carrie’s safety pins tattoo

In October 2018, I met with tattoo artist Anthony Jenkins, owner of The Intrepid Club in Waterdown (now in Dundas). Anthony is known for exquisite nipple re-creation tattoos and has done a lot of work on scars and with mastectomy clients. I took my idea to him and he immediately got it. Rather than put me on the many months waiting list as I had expected and was prepared for, he offered to do the tattoo in the following days. I said yes, made the appointment, and left wondering “what I have done?” When I returned, Anthony had designed the tattoo based on our discussion and it was perfect. The actual tattooing was not painful or uncomfortable (my scar area is quite numb) – it was closer to a prickly sensation like an electric razor, and it was all done within 45 minutes.

A year and a half later I still love the tattoo. It has given me many a smile in response to startled looks from medical staff when I’m disrobed for checkups and scans. It accomplished exactly what I’d hoped it would for me: a visual and emotional reminder of strength and reinforcement. I own this scar.

Photo of author

By Carrie Brooks-Joiner, KAB Member

We know what the “C” word means. Given the prevalence of cancer in so many forms, most people have at least a passing familiarity of the disease. Yet, until it demands our attention, cancer tends to stay in the background of our consciousness.

For members of the Knot A Breast Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat team members, we have already faced the big “C”. For some of us, and others who have experienced cancer, it is not the big “C” that dominates our thoughts, but the big “R”; recurrence. My handy dictionary explains recurrence as the “fact of happening again”. Dr. Google goes on to explain that in a cancer context, recurrence is cancer that has recurred (come back or metastasized), usually after a period of time during which cancer could not be detected. Cancer may come back to the same place as the original (primary) tumour or in another place in the body. 

I was a cancer innocent. It never occurred to me that I would get breast cancer. There is very little cancer in my family and no breast cancer. I had none of the risk factors. I distinctly recall my mother explaining to me that it is cardiovascular disease that kills the women in my family. Perhaps she thought that somehow this awareness, and her reminders to pay attention to healthy living, would stave off that threat. Maybe it has, but there was cancer lurking behind it. 

To me, it was being blindsided by cancer, not the chemo, surgery or radiation that was hardest to recover from. I never saw it coming. It was like being hit in the head with a ball in the playground and you weren’t even part of the dodgeball game or really aware the game was going on. It stuns you and disorients you before you can make any sense of what happened. 

While I don’t accept that cancer is a “gift” or that it has made me a better person, I have learned to raise the bar on what is a health problem. I can brush off a nasty cold or the flare of a chronic injury as temporary minor annoyances; I know they won’t “kill” me. But I have to admit that there is the fleeting moment where I wonder whether the new cough or pain is a symptom of metastasis.

Recurrence rears its head at unexpected moments. At work, we joke about the hope of being retired at the conclusion of long-term projects, but that’s not where my thoughts go. When one of my daughters casually refers to getting married or having children “someday”, my silent thought is “Will I live that long?”.

As a breast cancer team, we talk about cancer frequently. There is tremendous value in sharing experiences and information about treatments, products, and services in a healthy and positive way. But other than the off-hand comment or joke, recurrence is not something we talk openly about. Perhaps it is reserved for more private, over coffee conversations or smaller car-pool chats. I suspect that it is a common fear among us but I don’t really know to what extent it fades or heightens over time or how it’s different for those at stage 0 versus stage 3.

I envy those who, post-treatment, can take a “no evidence of disease” or NED status, as “cure” and who can park cancer thoughts in the far back parking lot and move on. I am not able to do that. (Perhaps I am being naive that anyone ever really moves on.) My knowledge of my high risk of recurrence stays with me. A glimpse of my mastectomy scar as I get out of the shower, or a damn pink ribbon on my package of lettuce, are constant little reminders that register to my subconscious. While the return of cancer is on my mind, it doesn’t haunt me in a depressive way or negatively impacts my daily life. Like a song I can’t get out of my head, or a word I can’t quite remember, recurrence hovers just under the surface of my daily thoughts.

I know that my awareness of the risk of recurrence is a little bit of armour. Informed by a growing file of peer-reviewed journal articles and familiarity with Kaplan-Meier overall survival graphs, I am still frustrated by the lack of specificity. If, or when, cancer reoccurs, I imagine I will be angry, sad, and disoriented, but I won’t be blindsided. The return of cancer will be much easier for me to rationalize than the original diagnosis.

So what do I do with all this? What do fellow paddlers do with this? I have no good advice for anyone else with recurrence on the brain. It can be a deep dark hole that is hard to climb out of once you fall in. Or it can be a place that you never acknowledge exists. For me, the hovering presence of recurrence is a reminder to live a little faster and live a little more deliberately.

Author’s note: This blog was written prior to COVID-19, and published in 2020 while the world is in a pandemic. Measures that are currently in place to control the spread of the virus are negatively impacting KAB members’ treatments, appointments and healthy living routines. Even under these exceptional circumstances and new health concerns, thoughts of recurrence still linger. All the more reason to connect with others, have authentic conversations and find joy in every day.