For many breast cancer survivors, the long rehabilitation process can be daunting, but it is made much easier for one group of women who have found a way to integrate sport into their daily lives.
Liaw Pey-jiun, a seven-year breast cancer survivor, said that rehabilitation has not been a problem for her because she exercises regularly and participates in a wide variety of sporting events, the most recent being the traditional dragon boat race.
Liaw, 56, is a retired nurse and the newly elected captain of the nation’s first Breast Cancer Survivors Dragon Boat team, which was formed last year as a way of encouraging patients to take part in public sporting activities.
The initiative was so successful that 60 people signed up, which meant they had to be split into two teams.
“It has helped me profoundly,” Liaw said. “Now I want to introduce more breast cancer survivors to the sport.”
“Not only do I feel healthier, I also think that being in the same boat — quite literally — helps to forge a valuable bond between the team members,” she said.
At Bitan and Dajia Riverside Parks, where teams often train for the dragon boat races, the new found friends — some in their 70s — practice at their own pace and keep up a steady stream of conversation.
Liaw said they talk about everything, from family life to -fighting depression, a condition with which many breast cancer survivors struggle to cope.
“We don’t want to bother our loved ones all the time, and this activity offers the perfect opportunity to share our problems with one another,” she said.
In medical circles, there has been more of a focus in recent times on the rehabilitation aspect of breast cancer treatment, according to one professional.
“In the past, doctors paid more attention to surgical or chemical treatment than to rehabilitation,” said Chen Huo-mu (陳火木), director of the Department of Breast Surgery at Taipei City Hospital.
“But the high survival rate over the years has led us to think about how breast cancer patients can live longer and lead happier lives,” said Chen, who strongly supports the boat racing activity as a form of rehabilitation.
There are more than 8,000 new breast cancer survivors each year and more than 70 percent surpass the 10-year survival estimate, he said.
Dragon boat racing, which originated as part of the Chinese Dragon Boat festival, was highly recommended by Canadian professor Donald McKenzie in 1996 as an activity that could help decrease lymphedema among breast cancer patients.
“There are more than 100 racing teams composed of breast cancer patients around the world now, so there is no reason why we should not support the activity,” Chen said.
Asked about the physiological benefits, he said that various types of research have proven that rowing strengthens the upper body muscles and helps reduce tissue swelling, or lymphedema, which usually results from the removal of lymph nodes.
“Any form of exercise is helpful as long as the muscles are being worked on a regular basis,” said Lin Wei-chieh (林葳婕), secretary-general of the Taiwan Breast Cancer Alliance and an organizer of water dance lessons.
“It is best if the instructor becomes familiar with the specific needs of breast cancer survivors and integrates therapeutic massage into the movements,” she said.
For Liaw, however, the psychological benefits gained from boat racing far outweigh the physical advantages.
“The scariest thing is to fight breast cancer alone, but I feel a sense of identity and belonging when I’m working with my teammates,” she said.