Donna Freyman was 56 when she took to the Schuykill River last summer to give her absolute all in her first dragon boat race.
The Glenside resident recalled feeling strong, athletic and, most importantly, completely rejuvenated from her battle with breast cancer just the year before as she paddled down the 500-meter course.
Her 19 fellow teammates could empathize with that. Their crew, Against the Wind, is comprised entirely of breast cancer survivors, about a quarter of them Jewish. They’re part of the larger Philadelphia Flying Phoenix women’s dragon boat team, which collectively counts more than 70 members among its recreational, competitive and survivor divisions.
Weather permitting, they’ll be back on the river next week to begin practicing for their upcoming May competitions.
Freyman, now 57, and other teammates credit this unique team for becoming a crucial element in their recovery, a support system they couldn’t find anywhere else.
“The experience was completely different from what I expected,” recalled Freyman. “I have spent 20 years on West River Drive looking at the boats, and now I was in it with this very supportive group of women. I was amazed by the magnificence of the city at sunset. I was hooked the second I put my paddle in the water, and I am still hooked.”
Freyman first learned about the team in December 2012 while receiving chemotherapy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Members of the River Sisters, another dragon boat team for cancer survivors based in South Jersey, were distributing “Blankets of Hope” to patients. These breast cancer survivors shared their stories about what compelled them to join the crew.
Freyman had a very good prognosis because she detected her cancer early.
“I found the lump myself, three weeks later it was out,” she recalled.
After the lumpectomy, she had four rounds of chemotherapy and a shortened, three-week radiation regimen.
“You don’t feel sick when you are diagnosed with cancer. You look exactly the same,” Freyman said. “It’s not until they treat you for the cancer that your hair falls out, you feel lousy and you live on mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs and pasta. Chemo sucks. Radiation is tedious every day.”
In order to maintain some normalcy in her life, she continued working as the director of human resources and recruitment for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia throughout her treatment, taking days off as needed.
“My boss would walk into my office and say, ‘Donna, it’s time to leave.’ ”
Between putting on a good face for work and her family, Freyman said, it was hard to make herself a priority. But when she was almost finished with radiation treatment, she decided it was time to do something to help her recover.
“Otherwise, I am just going to be a blob on the couch,” she explained. “Because fatigue is the No. 1 symptom of radiation, I decided to do something that would get me up.”
While Philadelphia’s “Against the Wind” has been in existence since 2001, the idea of using boating as an organized activity for breast cancer survivors started years before that. Dr. Donald McKenzie, director of the Allan McGavin Sports Medicine Centre in British Columbia, reportedly created the first breast cancer survivor team in 1996, named by its paddlers “Abreast in a Boat.” The project was part of McKenzie’s efforts to develop a vigorous post-treatment plan to help cancer survivors prepare themselves emotionally, mentally and physically to return to “real-life.”
His work not only dispelled the myth that repetitive upper-body exercise for post-treatment care may cause lymphedema, or swelling of the upper arms and chest area, but it also created a support system for women who were all literally in the same boat. The project led to the formation of the Abreast in a Boat Society, which works to raise awareness of breast cancer.
Today, there are more than 150 breast cancer survivor dragon boat teams in 12 countries around the world, according to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission.
Freyman’s introduction to the sport started at a fitness center on the Main Line that has an indoor paddle pool set up to mimic a dragon boat. After four sessions, her teammates encouraged her to get on the river.
Their support, she said, gave her the courage to conquer her fears. Much to her surprise, she added, dragon boating enabled her to bounce back with more stamina and endurance than she had before her cancer.
Aside from paddling, the women also engage in a community service project every month. This Thursday, they’re scheduled to volunteer at the Ronald McDonald House in Philadelphia, where families stay while their seriously ill children receive medical treatment at nearby hospitals.
“We all feel very fortunate, so it is our way to give back,” explained Center City resident Lynn Marks, who joined the team in 2005, about five years after a double mastectomy.
Marks, 64, recalled accompanying her father, a former president of the American Jewish Society, as he went door-to-door to fundraise when she was a little girl. She credited those tzedakah lessons for prompting her to become a public interest lawyer.
“Being a breast cancer survivor is obviously a big part of my life, but I don’t define myself as a cancer survivor,” Marks said. “These festivals are about living life. It is inspiring to see women as strong as they can be.”