Members of Stayin’ Alive, a mixed dragon boat team for cancer survivors and their supporters, show their spirit before a recent practice. The crew will be among those competing at the 2018 Dragon Boat Festival Aug. 10 to 12.                                Wolf Depner/News Staff

Members of Stayin’ Alive, a mixed dragon boat team for cancer survivors and their supporters, show their spirit before a recent practice. The crew will be among those competing at the 2018 Dragon Boat Festival Aug. 10 to 12. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Mixed dragon boat pulls cancer survivors together

Stayin’ Alive crew will compete in 2018 Dragon Boat Festival Aug. 10 to 12

Rhonda Hilton knows far too well what cancer can do.

The 64-year-old retiree has had two successful surgeries for thyroid cancer. Less than six years ago, stomach cancer claimed her husband of 40 years, permanently altering her life.

Looking for a fresh start, Hilton left Ontario for Victoria, which she had come to love while visiting her two adult daughters over the years.

As Hilton familiarized herself with her home, she noticed the dragon boats on the Gorge waterway.

“They always interested me, and I thought as they were looking for cancer survivors and their supporters, I might just fit in,” she said.

Emails with Karen Wilson, a longtime paddler with the Fairway Gorge Paddling Club and the Island Breast Strokers, who received two diagnoses of breast cancer during the last two decades, followed.

Hilton eventually became one of the first crew members of Stayin’ Alive, a mixed-gender team for cancer survivors and supporters that Wilson and her husband Keith had formed to give cancer survivors and their supporters a sanctuary where they can draw strength in a supportive, knowledgeable environment.

While all-female teams of breast cancer survivors are common, Stayin’ Alive would be the first of its kind in the region.

Hilton hasn’t looked back since joining. She loves being on the water, and marvels at the scenery. The entire experience has since given her a new confidence, as she moves forward with her life.

“I have always been kind of in awe that people do so well in activities they choose,” she said. “Now, instead I can just be proud to have found my own.”

Hilton will get a chance to show this when she and her crew mates race in the 2018 Dragon Boat Festival Aug. 10-12, an accomplishment by any measure considering that the team did not have its first on-water session until June 2.

Original plans for the team were modest, said Keith Wilson, who two years ago received a diagnosis of throat cancer, now in remission. They were just planning to race as an exhibition team. “It’s just like a fifth boat [in a heat],” he said. “But now we are actually in the schedule, and we can actually win a medal, if we are good enough.”

The 22-member crew covers a wide range of ages and athletic abilities.

“The oldest one is probably 70, and the youngest one in their mid-30s,” he said. “We have people who haven’t done anything close to this kind of exercise ever. So we have to bring them up slowly, and then we have other people who are quite athletic.”

As for the number of people, who have raced before, it is, well, small. “Two, if you count my wife [Karen] three.”

The other one is Jo-Ann Zador, who has been a competitive dragon boat racer for the last five years, along with her husband. In late May though, Zador heard that her adult daughter had received a diagnosis of breast cancer.

“I felt quite lost,” she said. “I felt that emotionally I needed more support, so I asked Karen and Keith if they could use my help.”

They agreed and the relationship between Zador and the relatively inexperienced crew has been nothing less than a win-win.

“To me, being on the water in my dragon boat has always been my anchor, my calm, my place of peace in this storm my family is trying to cope with,” said Zador. “So to be welcomed to join this team is the best thing that has happened to me since May – they will get me through.”

Being part of this team has taught Zador that it is OK to hurt and cry. “I am humbled by the kindness of people who have suffered, the kindness of people who have conquered, the kindness of people who give you hug when they see the tears, and and there is light at the end of tunnel,” she said. “I have experienced true compassion and caring words of comfort.”

Working with inexperienced crew members, who are either recovering from cancer themselves or are supporting others, requires care and consideration, said Wilson.

The boat’s complement might not always be complete or in their best physical condition as paddlers might be dealing with the physical or emotional effects of cancer – the “gift that keeps on giving,” as Wilson calls it with a hint of knowing irony.

But he has also seen the strength that crew members have drawn from each other during this year, which will hopefully be the first of many more to come.

“This first year is going to be rough,” he said. “But we will get through it.”

He doesn’t need to say that, as they have been through far worse.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Students from Cedar Hill Middle School play and hold a sign to protest proposed music cuts to school band programs in the Greater Victoria School District, during a Monday event. The district is facing a massive deficit and is considering a number of options for cutting costs. (Photo courtesy Laura Alcaraz-Sehn)
Massive student demonstration planned to protest Greater Victoria school band cuts

Band students from 14 SD61 schools will be at major intersections Thursday after school

Island Health has reported a COVID-19 exposure at Pacific Christian Elementary School on April 12. (Google Streetview/Screenshot)
COVID-19 exposure reported at Saanich elementary school

Pacific Christian Elementary School experienced exposure on April 12

Reuben Forsland in his East Sooke studio with the guitar he crafted from hemp wood that he hopes will start a conversation about sustainability. (Rick Stiebel - Sooke News Mirror)
East Sooke artisan strikes a chord with custom guitars

Guitars include wood from Hendrix childhood home in Seattle

Island Health declared a COVID-19 outbreak in two houses at the Mount St. Mary long-term care home on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Google Earth)
Island Health declares outbreak at Victoria long-term care home

Resident, staff member test positive for COVID-19 at Mount St. Mary facility

A man accused of choking a 15-year-old in his tent in Beacon Hill Park Tuesday night has been arrested by Victoria police. (Black Press Media file photo)
Man accused of choking, sexually exploiting 15-year-old in Victoria tent arrested

Police arrested the 38-year-old in Beacon Hill Park Wednesday afternoon

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

(Black Press Media file photo)
POLL: Have rising prices caused you to give up hope of buying a home?

Do you have a spare 50 grand or so kicking around (have… Continue reading

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of April 20

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

Letisha Reimer, 13, was killed Nov. 1, 2016 in a stabbing at Abbotsford Senior Secondary.
Second-degree murder conviction stands for Abbotsford school killer

Judge finds that Gabriel Klein is criminally responsible for death of Letisha Reimer

FILE – RCMP officers wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 stand by as protesters opposed to the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion block rail lines, in Burnaby, B.C., on Friday, November 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Very scary’: B.C. travel rules too vague, shouldn’t involve police, civil liberties group says

BCCLA said that speaking with communities could have avoided top-down approach

Ocean Legacy Foundation members conduct a shoreline pollution cleanup in Vancouver. (OLP)
It’s time to end ‘suffocating’ plastic pollution along B.C. shorelines, advocates urge

This Earth Day, Ocean Legacy Foundation is launching a free educational platform to educate the public about plastic pollution

A teacher-librarian in Nanaimo was fired in 2019 for checking out an age-inappropriate graphic novel to a student. The discipline agreement was published Wednesday, April 21. (News Bulletin file photo)
B.C. teacher-librarian fired for checking out too-graphic graphic novel to student

Teacher had been previously disciplined and suspended on two occasions

Aria Pendak Jefferson cuddles ChiChi, the family cat that ran away two years ago in Ucluelet. The feline was missing until Courtney Johnson and Barry Edge discovered her in the parking lot of the Canadian Princess earlier this month. Aria and her parents were reunited with ChiChi in a parking lot in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
An Island girl’s wish is answered as her cat came back

Courtenay family reunited with cat that went missing in Ucluelet in 2019

The Coastal Fire Centre is looking ahead to the wildfire season on Vancouver Island. (Phil McLachlan – Western News)
Coastal Fire Centre looking ahead at wildfire season on Vancouver Island

‘We’re asking people in the spring to be very careful’

Most Read