A 2nd Act: Hear the Desert Dragons Road

The goal of the Desert Dragons team is to extend its support network to the many women and men diagnosed with breast cancer in the Phoenix area each year.

Melissa Adams was 31 when she found a lump in her breast. “You’re too young to have breast cancer,” her Pittsburgh doctor told her. Yet cancer it was, and positive for the BRCA2 genetic mutation as well. Just like that, Adams’s life changed forever. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy, reconstruction, 30 rounds of radiation, and five years of an estrogen blocker. Then came more surgeries, most of them related to complications from her radiation. 

“I was left searching for its meaning in my life,” she said. “Then one day, as I was pacing at my newly-appointed gynecological oncologist’s office, I saw a postcard with a picture of a boat filled with women. The message beneath read, ‘Come Paddle With Us.’ I didn’t know what kind of boat was on the postcard, but I knew I wanted to be a part of whatever it was!”

And just like that, Adams’s life changed again, this time in a wonderful way. A week after seeing the postcard, she was in the front of a dragon boat with 20 other breast cancer survivors, paddling the 40-foot vessel, all in unison.

“As I looked into the faces of these women, I saw strength, I saw hope, I saw women who never gave up. They were Pink Steel, and I wanted to be one of them!” Adams said. She paddled with Pink Steel in Pittsburgh for seven years. During that time, her coach helped her learn a great deal about herself. She vowed she would coach a team one day, too.

That day came sooner than she expected. When her husband suggested a move to Phoenix, Adams agreed on the stipulation that there was a dragon boat team. (She never imagined she would play a water sport in the desert!) Shortly after joining the Desert Dragons, the team’s coach had to leave and Adams took up the position.

Desert Dragons belong to the Breast Cancer Paddlers, which is a division of the U.S. Dragon Boating Federation. Their mission is to encourage and empower breast cancer survivors by promoting a healthy lifestyle, balance and mindfulness within a fun, positive and supportive community. Cancer is a tough journey, requiring more healing than just within the body.

A cancer patient is considered a survivor from the moment of diagnosis, as that’s when they begin surviving the disease. One remains a survivor for the balance of life, whether they have no evidence of disease, or they must live with their cancer. The dragon boat teams help survivors take their lives back after cancer.

Adams speaks with awe about one of her survivor paddlers. “Deb Hebert lived with stage 4 breast cancer for a long time. She played soccer, ran triathlons and, even though she was 20 years older, could run circles around all of us. She was the steer, and that’s not an easy job. You have 20 people in a boat and hope they all paddle at the same time.”

Adams paused, then: “Despite not feeling well because of chemo and brain radiation, she was always cheering people on to get out of their comfort zone. Even if you didn’t believe in yourself, Deb would believe in you.”

Hebert died in 2020, but she left behind a team that paddles on in her honor, and that of the two others who have died. Paddling together creates unbreakable bonds and lifelong friendships; it becomes a source of hope, strength and inspiration. That’s a powerful formula for anyone, cancer survivor or not.

“After a year under my coaching, we won our first-ever gold medal at a festival in Las Vegas,” Adams said. “And we have defended that gold for the past two years.” The team raises funds to offset the cost of equipment
and travel. 

In 2018, the team traveled to its first international competition in Florence, Italy, for the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Festival. “We competed with over 125 other breast cancer survivor teams from 25 different countries,”
Adams said. “We finished in the top third. And now, we’re setting our sights on the 2024 international festival, this time in New Zealand.”

On any given weekend, you’ll find the Desert Dragons practicing on Tempe Town Lake. They’re easy to spot;
just look for the pink. Watch them row in perfect harmony. Listen to the sound of the boat gliding through the water. Remember how strong these athletes are to have gone through their trials and come out the other side, more resilient. 

Take inspiration from them. And then go slay your own dragon.

To learn more, go to arizonabcs.com. 

About Judy Pearson

Judy Pearson is a journalist, published author, and the founder of A2ndAct.org. Her organization supports and celebrates women survivors of all cancers as they give back to the greater good in their 2nd Acts. Her passion is finding those who have have healed themselves by helping others.

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