Breast Cancer Survivors Go Pink! DC Find Meaning at the Dragon Boat Festival

It’ll be hard to miss the breast-cancer survivors at Saturday’s Dragon Boat Festival in Georgetown—just look for the pink

The Go Pink! DC team is a blur of pink and purple. The boas are a good touch. Photograph by Robin Barr

Update (2 PM): The Dragon Boat Festival has been canceled this weekend due to high river waters. Organizers are working to plan a make-up date. 

If you go to the Washington DC Dragon Boat Festival in Georgetown on Saturday morning, don’t be surprised if you see lots of pink. Those pink-and-purple-clad paddlers on the Potomac are breast-cancer survivors.

“Breast cancer made me think, ‘I gotta do something different in my life,’ ” says Brigid Krizek, 63, a breast-cancer survivor and dragon-boat paddler. “I had never been an athlete, never been on a sports team. But I called and went down there, and I was hooked.”

The connection between breast-cancer survivors and dragon-boat paddling started in 1996 with a Canadian sports-medicine physician named Don McKenzie, who wanted to do research on whether lymphedema, the swelling that often results from surgery for breast cancer, gets better or worse with upper-body exercise. He formed a group, Abreast in a Boat, and coached the women through exercises and training. While his research couldn’t quite prove that it helped with lymphedema, he did determine that the swelling didn’t get worse. McKenzie had set in motion a group of women who suddenly had a positive way to deal with a breast-cancer diagnosis.

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Since then, interest in the sport has blossomed throughout the world, and there are dragon-boat races specifically for breast-cancer survivors around the country. At the DC festival, which is in its tenth year, five boats of breast-cancer survivors will join roughly 70 other boats from around the world in an event that combines Chinese folklore, a competitive spirit, and a lot of colorful outfits.

Dragon boats are long, narrow vessels with a dragon head on the front and a wooden tail in back. Paddlers face forward—don’t confuse them with rowers on crew teams—and are guided by a drummer who faces the paddlers and bangs a drum to keep the rowing rhythm. Saturday’s race will begin with a traditional “eye-dotting ceremony,” in which the eyes in the dragon heads are painted. The goal, say organizers, is to wake the sleeping dragon.

The breast-cancer survivors will have their own ceremony: Those boats will raft out together, the paddlers will hold hands, a poem will be read, and every paddler will throw a pink carnation into the water in what participants call a gesture of “hope and remembrance.”

But this is not all about cancer, say members of Go Pink! DC, a local dragon-boat team made up of breast-cancer survivors. Team member Mary McComb, 62, says, “When we’re preparing and practicing and competing, it’s not ‘Oh, you poor cancer survivor,’ it’s ‘Oh, look what you can do today that you couldn’t do four weeks ago.’ ”

Jane Crawford, a Go Pink! DC board member and paddler, says that the topic of cancer does come up, “but it’s not something we dwell on. It’s all about celebrating life and putting cancer behind us.”

Leslie Caplan joined the group several years ago when she had just finished chemotherapy and radiation; she was nearly bald. What she discovered was a sense of empowerment. “When you’ve been a patient for a long time and people are doing things to you, you don’t have a lot of control,” she says. “In a dragon boat, it’s all about what you can do, and that’s a very freeing, liberating experience for someone who has been in the health-care system for a while.”

Being out on the water is another plus. “If I could paddle seven days a week, I would,” says member Diana Dean.

“I’ve never been an athlete,” says Krizek, who now rows with a coed team called the DC Dragons. “And yet it’s Saturday morning and it’s raining and we’re sitting out there in a boat. Every time I put my paddle in the water for the first time, I’m like, ‘This is so neat.’ ”

The Dragon Boat Festival, organized by the Chinese Women’s League, will run on Saturday and Sunday from 8 AM to about 4:30 PM at Thompson’s Boat Center (2900 Virginia Ave., NW). Boaters will row 250-meter races on Saturday and 500-meter races on Sunday, and there will be Chinese cultural activities such as sugar-candy sculptures, kung fu, calligraphy, and dancing for those not out on the water. One boat, the Out of Sight Dragons, will be paddled by blind and vision-impaired participants. For more information, go to the event Web site.

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Debra Bruno

Debra Bruno (, who lives in DC, writes frequently for the Washington Post and Washington Lawyer, among others.