Cancer Survivorship: Physical Activity and Dragon Boating

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Cancer Survivorship: Physical Activity and Dragon Boating


Guest: Dr. Cindy Carter – Hollings Cancer Center

Host: Dr. Linda Austin – Psychiatry

Dr. Linda Austin: I am Dr. Linda Austin. I am talking today with Dr. Cindy Carter who is a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor at Hollings Cancer Center. Dr. Carter, you are doing some very interesting research there now, at Hollings, about the importance of physical activity in cancer recovery. I think we have really turned a corner now where people often do not just die of cancer, they may live with cancer for a very long time. What are your observations and findings about the importance of physical activity?

Dr. Cindy Carter: You are right. I think we are in a very exciting time, right now, in cancer survivor research, in understanding the survivorship experience. We now have nearly 10,000,000 survivors in the United States. There is an emerging body of research that suggests that physical activity following a cancer diagnosis can have a powerful and positive impact on quality of life. So, quality of life includes not only physical outcomes, physical functioning, but also emotional and psychological experiences.

Dr. Linda Austin: Now, I noticed you did not say that it is associated with increased longevity or survival with cancer.

Dr. Cindy Carter: That is an interesting question. Actually, there is some very new research that is currently being conducted through a number of cancer cooperative groups and also through NCI evaluating the role of physical activity, in terms of reducing the risk of recurrence, in some cancers. Now, this is very early in the research stage. The primary areas would be in colon cancer as well as in breast cancer. There does seem to be some new evidence that physical activity may, in fact, reduce the risk of recurrence for people who have already had a diagnosis of cancer.

Dr. Linda Austin: You are involved in a very wonderful and interesting project at Hollings called the Dragon Boat project, or program. Tell us about that.

Dr. Cindy Carter: This is a fun, exciting, program. A dragon boat is essentially an ancient Chinese sport. Our dragon boats are 48 feet long and seat up to 24 paddlers and have a dragon head in the front of the boat and a dragon tail in the back. The person in the front of the boat beats a drum, that is the heartbeat of the dragon, and all of the participants are cancer survivors, men and women, adult survivors who get together in this boat and paddle in unison, in dragon boating. Not only do they go out and practice, but even more, I think, exciting to many of the members is that we have competitions with other people throughout the country who are racing dragon boats.

Dr. Linda Austin: How long has this program been going on?

Dr. Cindy Carter: The program is entering its fifth year. So, we have two boats that are usually full, about three times a week. We welcome all cancer survivors who may be interested in getting outside and putting themselves in a position where they are surrounded with other survivors. Frankly, many people do not realize that they are actually working physically because it is so much fun. We really do not see the kind of dropout that you find in many physical activity programs because people just enjoy being out on the water and paddling with other survivors.

Dr. Linda Austin: How in the world did somebody, and who was that, come up with this idea? I mean, there are a lot of ways to get physical activity. How did dragon boating emerge as something that Hollings would invest in?

Dr. Cindy Carter: That is a great story. We have, I think, a sports medicine physician out in Vancouver, British Columbia, really, to thank in the survivorship community, Dr. Don McKinsey. In 1996, he had a breast cancer survivor come to him for some physical activity fitness evaluation and had indicated to him that many of the exercises he asked her to do, she was not able to do because of doctor recommendations concerning lymphedema, which is the swelling of the arm, a woman who has had breast surgery and an axillary node dissection. So, Dr. McKinsey did some research and found that we really did not understand lymphedema very well. So, he decided to take a group of breast cancer survivors and put them in a dragon boat, which is actually a very popular Canadian sport. Dragon boating is an activity that many people in Canada go to, a dragon boat festival, probably, every weekend in Canada.

Up until that point, however, it was not a survivor oriented activity. So, he put together a group of women who were all breast cancer survivors. They called themselves A Breast in a Boat. So, since that time, this idea of cancer survivor dragon boat teams has really exploded. Throughout Canada and the United States, we now find hundreds of cancer survivor teams that compete in dragon boat festivals throughout North America as well as internationally.

Dr. Linda Austin: How do they get the boats from one location to another, to race?

Dr. Cindy Carter: Typically a festival will host teams and the festival provides the dragon boats that you race in. So, the team simply has to arrive at the festival ready to paddle and the dragon boats are provided for the participants.

Dr. Linda Austin: It must be a lot of fun.

Dr. Cindy Carter: It is great fun. Dragon boat festivals are not only racing events, they are beautiful, magical experiences with great color. There are wonderful stories associated with this ancient Chinese sport. There was a philosopher around 400 BC who was considered a great Chinese patriot and he was disappointed by the conduct by the ruling king in his province, by the corruption. His name was Qu Yuan and Qu Yuan was eventually exiled for his outspoken dissent. Through his sadness, as the story goes, Qu Yuan threw his body into the river. Well, he was so beloved by the villagers, they all raced out to the river in their long boats and splashed their paddles to keep the evil spirits away from Qu Yuan’s body and threw rice into the river. So, to this day, you will find the ceremonial paddle splashing and rice being offered to the water dragons before the festival begins.

Dr. Linda Austin: Dr. Carter, thank so much for talking with us today.

Dr. Cindy Carter: Thank you for having me, Linda.

If you have any questions about the services or programs offered at the Medical University of South Carolina or if you would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians, please call MUSC Health Connection: (843) 792-1414.

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