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

Unemployment surpasses historic high in Greater Victoria, tourism hit hard

Hospitality and tourism sectors hurting as pandemic continues

Victoria tattoo shops respond to sex assault allegations against male artists

Carne Tattoo and Painted Lotus Studios respond to allegations

‘I love my animals very dearly,’ says man at centre of Saanich park allegations

Man accused of assault after being approached for allegedly mistreating his dog

Mayor not in favour of low barrier housing at Oak Bay Lodge

Process is already in place to determine future of Oak Bay Lodge

Victoria seeks court order to enforce sheltering rules in Beacon Hill Park

People being asked to move out of environmentally sensitive areas of park

VIDEO: Langford cat missing 18 months reunited with family

Blue the cat found at Victoria museum 17 kilometres from home

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of July 7

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

POLL: Would you get a vaccine for COVID-19 when it is available?

With the number of positive COVID-19 tests skyrocketing across much of the… Continue reading

VIDEO: Alberta man rescues baby eagle believed to be drowning in East Kootenay lake

Brett Bacon was boating on a lake in Windermere when he spotted the baby eagle struggling in the water

Vancouver Island business ad unintentionally features OK gesture linked to white supremacy

Innocuous ‘OK’ gesture in cleaning franchise advertisement gets flak on social media for ‘supposedly’ promoting white supremacy

Comox Valley RCMP looking for missing woman

Ami Guthrie was last seen in Courtenay in early July

Conservationists raise concerns over state of care for grizzly cubs transferred to B.C. zoo

‘Let them be assessed now before their fate is sealed,’ urges B.C. conservationist Barb Murray

B.C.’s COVID-19 job recovery led by tourism, finance minister says

Okanagan a bright spot for in-province visitor economy

National Kitten Day aka the ‘purrfect’ day to foster a new friend

July 10 marks National Kitten Day, a special day to celebrate all things kittens

Most Read