Sunday, August 17, 2008


Every year, on this weekend in August, dragons of every description completely take over downtown and the harbour.

The Victoria Dragon Boat Festival is in its 12th year, and I've never missed one, even when I had to drive from up-Island to get here for it. I started coming originally because my son was really involved in the organizing ... and I continued to come because of the breast cancer survivors. Even if I can't make it to the whole weekend's activities, it's crucial to me to be there before noon on Sunday, because that's when the 'Breast Cancer Cup' races begin.

Breast cancer survivors' teams have been part of Canada's dragon boating scene almost since the beginning, and they compete throughout the weekend against all the other teams -- mixed recreational teams, mens, seniors -- on an equal basis. But the Breast Cancer Cup is the race in which they compete against each other, and it's amazing!

Even more amazing is the traditional ceremony held right after these women compete against one another in a race -- it's called the 'Carnation Ceremony', and it's one of the most moving things I've ever experienced.

"It's a tradition that honors those women who have passed away from breast cancer and those who are still fighting. It gives us a moment to remember those who are no longer with us and to acknowledge the contribution they have made to our lives and to our world," says one survivor. "And," adds another, "it's a celebration of all of us who still survive."

The boat teams raft up together ...

... and the women hold hands with one another across the boats. Every member has in her hand a single pink carnation.

As the boats are rafting up to each other, usually an announcer talks a bit about breast cancer, the struggle for survival and the hope for the future. Then the crowd is asked to participate in a moment of silence while an inspirational song like "The River", by Garth Brooks or “Heart Full of Hope” by Mike Fenton is played. The women in the boats do 'the wave', holding their flowers over their heads. And in the Victoria harbour, amongst thousands of spectators, I swear you really could hear a pin drop.

At the end of the song, the women in the boats (and in the audience, which is invited to participate), toss the flowers into the water in honor of all the courageous women who are no longer able to take up the paddle, and a celebratory cheer goes up amongst themselves and anyone who is watching.

Me? I stand on the shore and sob like a baby.

Like many of us, I've lost at least one friend to this disease... but a few years ago I realized that my reaction to this event goes even deeper. When I talked to my son about it, I said, "I don't get it -- this touches me so deeply, and yet I'm not a survivor." To which he replied, "Oh, yes, you are, Mom ... oh, yes, you are."

More about that tomorrow...


Grace said...

okay I am tearing up now, enjoy your festival!!!

Anonymous said...

I think I see my friend in the photo of the women throwing the flowers. She has been rowing (in Victoria) since her fight with breast cancer in 2001.

I also have known other women touched by this disease, one who lost her life to the battle.

Nicely done post.