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.”
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.