They look like everyday people — like the middle-aged women you might see behind you in line at the grocery store.

So when they’re out on a 44-foot boat on the Niagara River, paddling for their lives, the people sometimes wave or cheer as the ladies move through the water. Maybe it’s because they’re clearly not athletes. 

They are more; they’re survivors. 

The women are members of a dragon boat team, sponsored by a group called Hope Chest Buffalo. They are actually determined, devoted seasoned athletes who train several days a week. Each one of them is a breast cancer survivor. 

Dragon boat racing was born in China and involves paddlers on a long thin boat decorated at its bow with the head of a dragon and a tail at its stern. The sport has been embraced by breast cancer patients around the world, after a Canadian physician, Dr. Don McKenzie of Vancouver, British Columbia, determined that breast cancer patients do better if they exercise their arms and recommended paddling as an important healing tool.  

In Western New York, the 100 active paddlers on the dragon boat team are ages 40 to 70.

They and many other Hope Chest members participate in a program in conjunction with the Buffalo Athletic Club facilities, which offers several fitness classes each day and a program of nutrition classes for breast cancer survivors. 

For many of the women, it’s the first time they’re really physically active and exercising on a regular basis, according to Susan Gately, the board president of Hope Chest Buffalo. “We really focus on having a woman understand that if she can maintain a healthy weight and pay attention to her nutrition, we know the long term prospects for survival are much greater.”

Women from all over Western New York participate in Hope Chest Buffalo and the dragon boat events, including the annual Dragon Boat Festival at the University at Buffalo’s North Campus.

Debbie Hunt, 60, of Lancaster found out about the dragon boat through her hairdresser, who had a client who was a founder of Hope Chest Buffalo. After paddling for 15 years, she is now the captain of the team. 

“I love it,” she said. “It’s the silver lining to breast cancer. It’s such a positive happy comradery,” she said. “And it’s one of the best things for staying healthy. My doctor says, ‘I don’t know what you are doing, but keep on doing it.’ ”

“We talk about exercise and paddling and nutrition,” she said. “But honestly, we are rebuilding women’s lives. They come to us at the opposite side of their journey and we help them to physically rebuild and emotionally heal.”

To qualify as a paddler on the dragon boat, members must attend a series of exercise classes at the BAC and then attend the two or three practices on the Niagara River from May through October.

During the winter, the paddlers practice indoors at the BAC.

“There are several hundred women who participate in our exercise and nutrition program,” said Gately. We’re expanding all the time, we’re constantly reaching out into the community.” 

Dragon boat team members often travel the country to compete. The most recent away-race was in Sarasota, last October. “It was the experience of a lifetimes,” said Hunt. “There were thousands of breast cancer survivors from the entire world. It was so cool. It was just a sea of pink.”  

When asked how her team did in the competition, Hunt laughed. “We were first in our lane,” she said, jokingly. “Our philosophy is that you are here to have fun.”

While Hope Chest is a national organization, the Buffalo group is not part of the franchise, Gately said. “We are not part of a national organization. One hundred percent of our fundraising actives go right back into our program.”  

Hope Chest members who do not row still take advantage of the BAC exercise and nutrition classes, she said. “We work with a nutritionist who will conduct classes on food preparation and talk about essential nutrients and the balance between carbohydrates and protein, providing hands-on cooking demonstrations and recipes and cooking tips to our women,” Gately added.

Between the dragon races, the exercise classes and the nutrition classes, Hope Chest Buffalo leaders are devoted to supporting breast cancer survivors. “We help them to physically rebuild and emotionally heal,” Gately noted. “It’s a really powerful program and women who are part of it build friendships that will last the rest of their lives.”

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