The dragon boaters uniting against breast cancer
A squad of 20 women move with speed across the water. With individual paddles, they propel the narrow canoe forward. Merlin Osborne leads the dragon boating team, displaying power and precision. She is strong. She is fast. She is a cancer survivor. Dressed in shocking pink, Osborne and the team have all been affected in some way or another by breast cancer. “We’re all in the same boat and we’re fighting together,” she says.
In 2007, Osborne found a lump in her underarm. Despite her family’s history with cancer, she waited more than a month to get it checked. When her fears were confirmed, Osborne spent four days in her room trying to figure out what to do. “The first thought that I had in mind was death,” she says. Then, Osborne realised that she was more than the diagnosis. “I decided cancer wasn’t going to define who I am,” she says. Osborne started chemotherapy to shrink the lump, and later had a mastectomy to remove the affected breast. For five years, she was on medication that caused depression. Throughout the ordeal, Osborne approached her illness with positivity – joking about her lopsidedness and showing people her scar. “I wasn’t going to allow it to steal my joy,” she says. Even then, there were times when she needed others to keep her going. “I really felt lonely,” Osborne says. “No one could ever prepare one for the journey of breast cancer.” In search of support and a healthy distraction, Osborne joined dragon boating.
Formed in 2006, the amaBele Belles are the first dragon boat racing team in Africa to be powered by cancer survivors. The sport has a direct impact on recovery, as the paddling required reduces swelling in the arms that certain cancer treatments can cause. But being a dragon boater has benefitted Osborne beyond the physical results. Her team acts as a support group, providing guidance and comfort. “I’ve never been showered with so much love,” Osborne says. “People understood what I had gone through.” She’s continuing the process of healing, and is sharing her story to motivate others. Through dragon boating, Osborne wants to show that a cancer diagnosis is not the end. For her, it was the beginning of a journey filled with purpose and hope. “Even though the cancer is gone, the friendships I have made will never die,” Osborne says.