Finding light at the end of the tunnel

South Surrey breast cancer survivors take to the water.

Members of the Deas Divas dragon boating crew (left to right) Elisabeth Villeneuve

Members of the Deas Divas dragon boating crew (left to right) Elisabeth Villeneuve

What began as a research project nearly 20 years ago in Vancouver has grown into an international phenomenon celebrating strength, determination and support for breast cancer survivors worldwide.

Abreast In A Boat, a dragon boating organization comprised locally of close to 200 breast-cancer survivors around the Lower Mainland, is gearing up to celebrate its 20th season on the water this weekend.

For a group of South Surrey women – who paddle twice weekly out of Deas Slough in Delta under the name “Deas Divas” – involvement with the club provides a unique sense of camaraderie that stems from sharing a life-changing experience battling cancer.

“It’s about fun, it’s not about dwelling on breast cancer,” said Elisabeth Villeneuve, who is in her 19th season of paddling with the organization.

Villeneuve, 63, was recovering from surgery after being diagnosed in June 1996, when she saw a news story about the inaugural Abreast In A Boat crew taking part in their first race.

“I told everyone, ‘I’m going to join that crew!’” Villeneuve recalled, noting her lack of prior athletic involvement left her family and friends skeptical at the time.

“So I had to prove them wrong,” she laughed.

Pat Eveleigh, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, heard about Abreast In A Boat when she was living in Calgary, and joined the Deas Divas when she moved back to the Lower Mainland in 1999.

Carol McKay, one of the Divas’ “newbie” paddlers, joined the crew after her breast cancer treatment was completed two years ago. McKay knew about the organization through a friend back home in Australia, and said that getting involved was the silver lining in her cancer battle.

“I always thought, ‘wow, I hope I never qualify, but that would be fun,’” McKay, 72, said. “As soon as I found out (about my diagnosis) I thought, ‘well, I’ll make some lemonade from this lemon.’”

Abreast In A Boat first launched in 1996, when UBC sports medicine physician Dr. Don McKenzie gathered a group of breast cancer survivors to take part in regular dragon boating as part of a research project. McKenzie believed that regular exercise could help prevent survivors from suffering from lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arm and chest area that sometimes develops after lymph node surgery and radiation treatment.

The doctor’s theory was proven correct, and nearly 20 years later, the group has grown to include six crews around the Lower Mainland, and more than 160 teams worldwide.

The organization – which includes paddlers ranging in age from late-30s to mid-80s – strives to raise awareness about breast cancer and to show that those who have been diagnosed can lead healthy, active lives.

“Abreast In A Boat showed me that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” said Eveleigh, who has travelled the world taking part in dragon boat regattas and helping to launch branches in other countries.

The women lamented how different cultures around the globe react to breast cancer survivors in different ways; in certain countries, Eveleigh, 72, said discussing a breast cancer diagnosis is “a cultural taboo,” and considered an embarrassment for women and their families.

Villeneuve pointed out that, even in Canada, things have changed dramatically for survivors in recent years.

“Even 20 years ago, it wasn’t something that you really spoke about out loud,” she said.

The nearly 200 survivors who make up the Lower Mainland branch of Abreast In A Boat will be anything but quiet come Saturday, when they gather to celebrate two decades of paddling with a purpose. The day’s festivities will include short ceremonial paddles at Alder Bay near Granville Island, followed by a party at the False Creek Community Centre.

New paddlers are always welcome on the Deas Divas crew. Any breast cancer survivors who are interested in finding out more can visit or email