Health First’s Dragon Boat Support Tends to the Emotional Needs of Breast Cancer Patients
By Space Coast Daily // October 26, 2020
Health First has supported Heart & Soul Dragon Boat Team as community partner since 2014
When Melinda was diagnosed, Health First answered the call – not only through compassionate, top-notch medical care, but by supporting an organization that empowers patients and survivors.
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – Fighting and recovering from breast cancer is more than a physical journey. It’s an emotional one, too.
For Melinda Sands, Health First was able to help provide tools for both. Brevard’s community healthcare organization delivered her the care she needed through the Health First Cancer Institute, as well as the camaraderie she craved through supporting an important resource – the Heart & Soul Dragon Boat Team.
“I have a confidence that I didn’t have before,” Melinda, 43, said of her journey.
“I think it stems from just having gone through something profound. Every day just isn’t every day anymore. Every day means something, and every day counts.
So I’m a lot more willing to step outside my comfort zone, meet new people and engage in experiences, like Dragon Boating, that I wouldn’t have before.”
Health First has supported Heart & Soul Dragon Boat Team as a community partner since 2014. The partnership has contributed to improvements in the health and wellness of cancer survivors and their supporters throughout the community.
Heart & Soul, a nonprofit, consists of athletes, both breast cancer survivors and supporters, who want to share in the mission of increased health and friendships through Dragon Boating.
Through paddling in unison together, teammates work together to boost their health and be a support system for others who have gone through or are going through breast cancer.
Heart & Soul has more than 80 members, both men and women over age 18. Their breast cancer survivor team has about 20 women, ranging in age from 43 to 77. There are also a men’s team, mixed and a senior team. More information is available at heartandsouldragonboating.org
It was just months after Melinda had her first mammogram at 40 (which came back clear) when she felt a lump. She initially brushed it off, but when it grew to the size of a golf ball, she had it checked out. It was Stage 2 breast cancer.
“It was devastating,” said Melinda, who had a bilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction and chemotherapy. “But there were a few things that happened along the way that changed my ‘oh poor me’ story.”
While most breast cancers are detected through an abnormal mammogram, there are some that aren’t, said Dr. Firas Muwalla, Medical Director at the Health First Cancer Institute.
Up to 15% of women are diagnosed with breast cancer due to the presence of a breast mass that is not detected on mammogram (mammographically occult disease), and another 30% presented with a breast mass in the interval between mammograms (interval cancers), he said.
However, a 15 to 20% reduction in breast cancer mortality has been shown with mammographic screening.
“Early detection is very important,” Dr. Muwalla said. “That is the reason screening mammography is recommended. In addition to the impact on mortality, early detection may allow breast cancer patients to avoid postoperative cytotoxic chemotherapy.”
Melinda found having a team she had confidence in was critical. The Health First Cancer Institute got her through her diagnosis, surgery and recovery. And she found emotional support through a local breast cancer support group, as well as participating in Heart & Soul.
Becky Dukes, a cancer survivor, Health First Foundation board member and fundraising chair for Heart & Soul, said research has shown upper body exercise is crucial for the recovery and health of breast cancer survivors.
According to the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission, research has shown paddling helps prevent lymphedema, a debilitating and chronic side effect of treatment.
Bringing the sport to the Space Coast in 2014 only seemed natural. Health First’s support has helped fund two new boats, dock extension and floating dock at Oars and Paddles Park in Indian Harbour Beach, and other equipment for the cause.
Becky, Melinda and other Dragon Boaters met recently on a Friday morning at the park, where a group went out boating for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Teammates climbed into the vessel and paddled away for a workout, keeping safeguards in mind. The boat that usually holds 20 had a smaller group socially distancing and spread out, wearing masks for safety’s sake.
“Between that and the support you get from this group emotionally, it’s such a nice experience,” Becky said, adding the group supports survivors of other cancers. Anyone is welcome to join – cancer survivor or not.
Several paddlers have not only competed in the state of Florida, but nationally and internationally. Health First’s support helps cover race fees, too.
“It’s just been terrific for us,” Becky said. “We’re the community. I feel like Health First has really stepped up to the plate with us.”
Paddling, Becky explained, helps give breast cancer survivors their lives back. The group is fond of the saying, “Doctors saved our lives. Dragon boating saved our souls.”
Melinda is living proof, nearly three years later.
“Going through cancer with other women my age has been an important part of my experience,” she said. “I’m not alone.”
During treatment and recovery, it’s easy to feel cancer is all-consuming.
“When you’re doing it, you feel like there’s never going to be an end,” Melinda said. “You feel like cancer’s going to be the rest of your life.”
Heart & Soul gave her a glimpse of a life beyond cancer.
“The first time I paddled with Heart & Soul, I was on chemo and I came out here,” said Melinda, who was blown away by the experience. “I met all these women who survived cancer, and they’re thriving.”
It emboldened her to be brave. Meet new people. Become a competitor.
“I’m more secure with myself,” she said.
That’s not to say the journey hasn’t been a physically uncomfortable, emotionally draining one. But it’s one that Melinda believes has enhanced her experience.
“This sounds a little weird, but it’s been a positive experience in my life, because I know so many people that I didn’t use to know, I have the support of my Dragon Boat family, and I am overall a more outgoing, positive, confident person,” Melinda said.
“I wouldn’t wish cancer on anybody, but a lot of us have really incredible ‘after’ stories to tell,” Melinda said. “I think that’s important for women to hang on to when this happens to them. Because cancer is just a minute. It’s not forever.”
In order to provide more women access to the healthcare they need, including screening mammograms, Health First is offering this preventive screening for $100 when scheduled during the month of October (and completed by December 31).
3-D Mammography, also known as tomosynthesis, is available for an additional $25.