A Central Florida dragon boat team comprising breast-cancer survivors aren’t afraid to put up a fight.
Standing on the VFW’s dock at Lake Fairview, the ladies of Warriors on Water prepare for their morning practice.
The chariot of choice for these passionate peddlers is the dragon boat. It’s long, sleek frame is built for better hydrodynamics — which allows the team to glide through the water with ease.
But before the team of 22 steps into the boat, there’s a little tradition that has to be done — or in this case, sung.
Warriors on Water that’s our name,
dragon boating is our game,
we beat cancer on this crew,
makes us sisters through and through.
The cadence, performed in a call-and-response style, is a motivator to wake everyone up and get them ready to go.
But the chant is also more than just a motivational tool — it’s subject matter defines what brought this group of women from around the Central Florida area together in the first place.
The non-profit Warriors on Water is more than a dragon boat team — it’s a group of women comprised of breast-cancer survivors.
“We help newly diagnosed breast cancer patients,” said Yvette MacQueen, who has been a member since 2014. “We listen to them, because a lot of times that’s all you want to do is just talk about it. We (also) let them know what some resources are in Central Florida for them.”
“We have resources and we eventually want them to know about us, so once they go through their recovery they can join us,” said Fundraiser Chair Justine Finocchiaro-Doles.
The group, which has about 28 active members, participates in several races a year.
Currently, the team is gathering funds for races, with their biggest fundraiser being their fifth annual Golf Like a Warrior Tournament April 20 at Stoneybrook West Golf Club in Winter Garden.
The hope is to raise enough for the trek in July to Florence, Italy, to compete in the IBCPC Dragon Boat Festival. In 2014, the group finished ninth in the world at the event when it was held in Sarasota.
“It’s going to be crazy,” Finocchiaro-Doles said. “It’s going to be a sea of pink.”
Although the team was first developed in 2009 by a group of survivors, the concept of dragon boat racing for survivors dates back to the 1990s. Many believed that upper-body exercise for those who had dealt with breast cancer would lead to lymphedema, but in a medical study done by Dr. Donald McKenzie, an exercise physiologist a the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the opposite was discovered.
Folks around the world who were just like MacQueen, a one-time cancer survivor, and Finocchiaro-Doles, a three-time cancer survivor, were given a chance to do something that they were originally told they could no longer do.
MacQueen’s run-in with cancer came in 2009 during a routine screening. The Winter Park native always had been health conscious — getting screened annually since she was in her 20s — but something weird popped up this time.
She had to have multiple biopsies before doctors went in to perform a lumpectomies in both of her breasts. During the operation, doctors found cancer in her left breast but were able to remove it before taking in five years of Tamoxifen.
“They went back in and did more surgery to make sure there were clear margins — they took more tissue and tested it to make sure that everything was clear,” MacQueen said.
Finocchiaro-Doles’ history with cancer is a more extensive. A year after moving to Miami from New Jersey, in 1978, at age 18, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.
“It was not fun,” said Finocchiaro-Doles about the chemotherapy she received as a teenager. “I had third-degree burns on my chest — to this day my chest is a little on the brown side — but my skin peeled three-layers.”
Unlike MacQueen, Finocchiaro-Doles needed chemotherapy, and the process back then was much different than it is now.
She went into remission following the process, but excessive radiation lingered in her body and ultimately led to her second bout with cancer 20 years later. Her last bout with cancer came in 2008, when a mammogram indicated cancer in her left breast, which required a lumpectomy with Mammosite Radiation. Luckily for Finocchiaro-Doles, it worked.
Since coming across Warriors on Water a few years ago, MacQueen and Finocchiaro-Doles are doing their best to help those in their sisterhood.
“We are all type-A personalities, and we are all in charge, but there is one thing we know — we want to win and do our best,” Finocchiaro-Doles said, laughing.