Breast Cancer Survivors Inspire on the Water

The Empire Dragons NYC Dragon Boat team (Photos courtesy Empire Dragons NYC)

A group of local breast cancer survivors are all in the same boat – in more ways than one.

They’ve of course valiantly defeated breast cancer, proving that the disease is curable if caught early. They also race together literally in a boat, as part of the Empire Dragons NYC Dragon Boat team.

Empire Dragons NYC is the first and only Dragon Boat team made up of breast cancer survivors in New York City. Its mission is to promote the unique sport of Dragon Boating as a healthy means for team members to survive and thrive beyond cancer.

The team is made up of 47 members – 41 of whom have survived breast cancer and the rest who have successfully battled other forms of cancer. The team, which practices at the World’s Fair Flushing Bay Marina, is one of more than 150 breast cancer survivor teams worldwide.

Dragon Boating is a paddling sport that originated more than 2,000 years ago in southern China. As part of ancient religious ceremonies and folk ritual customs, contending villagers raced their boats – adorned with decorative Chinese dragon heads and tails – in a show of strength and power. In modern times, Dragon Boat racing emerged as an international sport beginning in Hong Kong in 1976.

Unlike traditional rowing involving the athlete holding both paddles, Dragon Boat racers are assigned to a specific side of the boat, with 10 on each side. A drummer helps the team keep up with the frequency of strokes, and a steersperson guides the long, narrow boat’s path.

Feeling Whole Again

The Empire team was founded in 2009 by Donna Wilson, currently the team captain and president. Given her experience as a personal trainer and clinical fitness specialist, she said felt strongly that cancer survivors benefit from being physically active.

While giving a fitness class at the Integrative Medicine Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan, a client asked her if she knew anything about Dragon Boat racing. Though she was unfamiliar at the time, she knew a research assistant, James Lozada, had a background in the sport.

Wilson, Lozada and Jennifer Merendino helped organize the team, which initially had seven members. Through lectures, advertising and word of mouth, the team soon grew to over 20 members and then to the current roster of 47.

“It’s taking a group of women that went through a devastating situation and making them feel whole again and making them feel like they can do anything,” Wilson said. “Most of the women are probably in better shape than they’ve ever been in their lives.”

One of the team members is Kelly Kelley, the former head varsity tennis coach at The Mary Louis Academy, Jamaica Estates. Upon her retirement after this past spring season, she concluded her 10-year GCHSAA coaching career with six diocesan titles and two state championships.

Kelley was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer in January 2007. She had a mastectomy two months later and then went through four rounds of chemotherapy.

Though she said there were some very low points during this treatment, her discovery of Dragon Boating through the Susan G. Komen Foundation lifted her spirits immensely. Having grown up in Rockaway, she loved the water, loved sports and loved being part of a team, so Dragon Boating wound up being her ideal sport.

“Dragon Boating has erased that (breast cancer treatment) all from my memory,” Kelley said. “It makes you feel better. You went through this time where you weren’t feeling well and couldn’t get out of bed, and now you’re able to exercise and be in really good shape and feel better about yourself competing in this really amazing sport.

“You’re out there in a boat with people who have all been through the same thing. We’re all from different walks of life and different neighborhoods, yet we have this one thing in common. It’s pretty rare.”

Success in Italy

Similar to the Olympic Games, the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission hosts a Dragon Boating festival somewhere in the world every four years. This past July in Florence, Italy, Empire Dragons Red and Empire Dragons Gold competed among 126 teams representing 17 countries.

Even after ramping up training to four times per week in June, both teams still felt a bit a nervous heading across the Atlantic for the international competition. However, those nerves soon turned to excitement upon arrival, since team members knew they were in top physical shape to keep up with anyone.

In their first 500-meter race, Empire Dragons Red won with a time of 2:25 – the team’s best ever in world competition.

“They were ecstatic,” Wilson said. “To see the happiness, the joy, the hugging and the smiles was so rewarding to me. I was so proud of them. They just dug deep and wanted to win.”

All told, the Red team finished in sixth place at the festival and third among American teams. This result has served as a further motivational factor for upcoming races in Hartford, Conn., and Princeton, N.J.

While the team’s achievements in Italy are undoubtedly notable, it’s the bigger picture here that’s even more inspiring. Just for these team members to come together on the water to bring about positive change serves as a model for breast cancer survivors everywhere: If they can do it, you can too.

“We’re like the bionic women,” Kelley said. “We’ve had body parts replaced or removed, but we get out there and there’s no mercy. I hope people see what we do, and that inspires them.”

They really are all in the same boat – living past breast cancer, one stroke at a time.

Contact Jim Mancari via email at

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