Beating the Dragon of Breast Cancer

 How the Dragon Dream Team is Challenging Breast Cancer one Boat at a Time

by Taylor Dawson

The first time 76-year-old cancer survivor Susan Balmert went paddle boating, a feeling of power overtook her. As one of the first members of the Dragon Dream Team, Ohio’s first ever breast cancer surviving boat team, Balmert initially felt skeptical of joining, but quickly changed her mind after her first time on the boat.

“There was something about the feeling of being with others who understood where I have been and there was a sense of power in taking on this dragon,” says Susan.

Founded 10 years ago, the Dragon Dream Team allows surviving cancer patients the chance to take back their bodies and lives. 20 years ago most believed that breast cancer survivors shouldn’t participate in any form of upper body sports.

But this notion is now being challenged thanks to doctors like Don McKenzie and Douglas Wagner. In an effort to prove that cancer survivors have the strength to perform upper body sports, 20 years ago, McKenzie chose the 2,000-year-old Chinese padding sport Dragon Boat Racing.

On Saturday, July 8, Portage Lakes State Park will be hosting the fifth annual Dragon Boat Festival thanks to Wagner, who created the team 10 years ago. At the festival, visitors will have the chance to see over 35 paddlers compete to the finish line.

The festival is part of a fundraiser for the team’s community outreach program, Boatloads of Hope. The organization works with 14 hospitals and cancer centers throughout Northeast Ohio to bring hope in the form of care packages to those who fear for their lives.

“Our message to them is wrap yourself in this cashmina. It’s like a hug from your sister survivors,” says Susan. “Realize that we’ve been in the same boat that you are in and now we’ve found a way to move forward. Realize that you can get through this and that life can be better as a survivor.”

All of the boaters at Dragon Boat Festival are eager to enter their dragon and race to show cancer who’s boss.

“Like a demon, cancer had us one time, but now we’re in charge of this dragon,” says Susan. “We’re directing where it goes and we’re back in control of our lives and our bodies. We’re moving forward.”


The Dragons on the Lake Dragon Boat Festival Portage Lakes State Park Saturday, July 8, 2017

(Photo courtesy of Dragons on the Lake (