According to a health researcher at McGill University, the best long-term therapy for breast cancer survivors has nothing to do with doctors or self-help books, but dragon boat racing.
The study, conducted by Dr. Catherine Sabiston of McGill's Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, stated that all the breast cancer survivors who participated in a dragon boat racing reported significantly improved physical and mental health and coped better with post-recovery trauma.
"For these women, the diagnosis and treatment of cancer were devastating. There was a huge amount of stress, which continued with the treatment and the worry of recurrence. They live every day with the worry 'Could this be the day my cancer comes back?'' Sabiston said.
With the encouragement of Sabiston's University of British Columbia colleague Dr. Don McKenzie, a number of dragon boat teams made up of breast cancer patients of varying ages and backgrounds were formed in Vancouver in the late 1990s.
A Dragon boat is a very long and narrow human powered boat used in the team paddling sport or Dragon boat racing which originated in China. For racing events, dragon boats are always rigged with decorative Chinese dragonheads and tails and are required to carry a large drum aboard.
The standard crew complement of a contemporary dragon boat is around 22, comprising 20 paddlers in pairs facing toward the bow of the boat, 1 drummer or caller at the bow facing toward the paddlers, and 1 steerer or tiller at the rear of the boat, although for races it is common to have just 18 paddlers.
"Up until about ten years ago, it was commonly believed that if you had breast cancer, you shouldn't be physically active, and you certainly shouldn't do upper body physical activity," Sabiston said.
In the study, Sabiston followed 20 dragon boaters with varying levels of experience to address a paucity of qualitative data in the field.
"Most of the previous literature on exercise and breast cancer has been from a quantitative assessment of physiological benefits. There wasn't anything that looked at how these women actually perceive exercise. We were trying to figure out whether having an environment where all these women exercised together enhanced or dispelled the myths around body image. We also wanted to look at how social support played a role in their recovery," she said.
The results, based on in-person interviews, demonstrated the positive benefits of the activity.
"Positive psychological growth following this traumatic event was extremely clear in these findings. The physical activity itself and the women the participants met acted as a sort of buffer to the enduring stresses of cancer recovery. They started to live their lives like athletes. It was extremely empowering," she said.
The study is published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology.