Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team offers support system and competitive outlet for local breast cancer survivors

As they do almost every week of the year, the women gathered by the water in downtown Portland on Saturday morning, the new day clear and already warming.

After some warm-up exercises, the ladies slipped on personal floatation devices and maneuvered themselves into two boats before gliding away from the marina and into the embrace of the Willamette River.

On this particular morning, the pink shirts and hats many of the women sported were giveaways, the vibrant pink being the color associated with breast cancer causes. These women of the Pink Phoenix Dragon Boat Team are associated with cancer, too, all of them finding life after the disease one collective paddle stroke at a time.

Eighty members strong — and including about a half-dozen paddlers from western Washington County — the Pink Phoenix provides for women with breast cancer the opportunity to forge friendships and support one another, raise awareness about the disease they all share, and engage in physical activity and competition.

“Each team member really has a great story to tell about their success and their survival and what it means to be a warrior,” said Banks resident Lori Godfrey, who was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago and just finished taking a medication that was part of her treatment protocol last week.

Dragon boats are watercrafts that resemble oversized canoes. They can fit 20 paddlers, as well as a caller (who shouts directions and encouragement) in the front and a tiller (who steers the boat) in the back.

The paddlers of the Pink Phoenix belong to a nonprofit organization that celebrated its 15th anniversary last year. Its members live throughout the greater Portland area and range in age from their early 30s to 90-plus. They meet on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings at the waterfront for practices, and they participate in a number of dragon boat races each year. In fact, a number of the team members plan to take part in a competition in Victoria, British Columbia, this weekend.

Racing is part of what the members of the Pink Phoenix do — they love winning their medals — but it is only a part. They also share their experiences and recruit new members at outreach events, some practice with the team but don’t race, and some are associate members who don’t even paddle.

“I think that’s one of the nice things about Pink Phoenix in particular, is that there are women in every level of their fitness, there’s women in every level of their recovery, and there’s a place for them on this team,” Godfrey noted.

And they find ways to help their sisters who are struggling with their illness, such as by providing gift baskets with comfort items. For one woman, Aloha resident Sara Sheets recalled, teammates provided assistance when she unexpectedly needed treatment, allowing the rest of her family to go on a previously planned vacation.

“We don’t forget the people who are not here,” said Sheets, 64, who learned about the team several years ago through her practice carpool buddy, Jean Strom, of Hillsboro. “If you’re on the team, we try to be there to support you.”

Karen Holscher discovered the team at a cancer symposium in Portland. The 45-year-old Forest Grove resident was diagnosed with what she described as a relatively unusual form of breast cancer in late 2011 and went to the symposium early the next year in hopes of learning about it.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t find information, but I stumbled onto this,” Holscher said about the Pink Phoenix.

As a woman who loves competition, Holscher will get plenty of chances to race with the Pink Phoenix. The team attends a number of events each year. Some are in their own backyard, such as the Rose Festival Dragon Boat Races in June and the upcoming Portland Dragon Boat Races, slated for Sept 7-8. The team has also made appearances in distant locales like San Diego, Philadelphia, and even Australia and New Zealand.

In addition to carrying each other to the finish line, thanks to all of their experience with the disease, the women can serve as a valuable source of information for each other, as Fran Breiling learned in 2005. Now a youthful looking 70, she received a breast cancer diagnosis in 1998 and joined the Pink Phoenix 11 years ago. In 2005, Breiling noticed some changes while performing a monthly breast exam, she said, and she mentioned her observations to a teammate. That woman encouraged her to get an examination, which revealed that Breiling’s cancer had returned.

“I don’t know that everybody gets it, but when somebody on the team tells you something, you really ought to listen, because we have so much experience,” said Breiling, who lives in Rock Creek.

Pink Phoenix members join the team not only at various stages of their treatment or post-treatment, but also with varying athletic backgrounds. Even those with previous sports experience, though, typically are not experienced paddlers. The team has a coach, and prospective members can attend three practice sessions free of charge and may borrow equipment while deciding if they want to purchase their own.

Those who do join will find a team that provides support and offers remembrance.

“I think that’s what Pink Phoenix does for other people,” said Strom, 67. “It brings up that emotion and memories and support we get from the group.”

On Saturday, stroke by stroke, the Pink Phoenix boats glided up and down the Willamette. One pull at a time, the women they carried paddled into life on the other side of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

“Besides just the knowledge, it’s the absolute strength of the people that have been through the similar thing,” Godfrey said about her team. “You look at them, and they’re looking at you right in the face. We’ve all kind of gone through a scare that turns into reality, and we see our teammates do it as well — go through the same experience — and be able to kind of meet them where they’re at, because we’ve got people fighting for their lives today.

“I mean, I feel like I’m still fighting for my life. This is why I paddle, is because I know that exercise — clean living, if you will — is going to help, and if it strikes again, that I will be in a great position to get well again.”

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