As a nurse, I had always been interested in the importance of movement and exercise for patients. The idea was reinforced when I began working with cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I knew it was important for patients to move and remain active during treatment. In 2003, I took time off from nursing to care for my mother when she fell ill. During the time off, I trained to become a certified personal trainer. When I was ready to return to work, MSKCC had created an Integrative Medicine Center (IMC). This was an opportune time to return to work and use my experience as a nurse and my passion for exercise, to help people feel better during their cancer treatment.
For the past 15 years, I’ve been involved with Focused Fitness, a program I created at MSKCC for breast cancer patients. The goal is to enhance the recovery process by increasing upper body strength and flexibility. Just as important, our patients are experiencing the added benefits of a decrease in fatigue and the opportunity to focus on something other than their cancer treatment.
One day, early in the program, a breast cancer survivor/client suggested I start a Dragon Boat team as part of the program. When, coincidentally, a colleague suggested the same thing, I decided to find out more. I learned that modern Dragon Boating is rooted in ancient Chinese culture and became an international sport in the 1970’s. Dragon boats are typically decorated with Chinese dragon heads, or tails, for races. Most boats include 20 paddlers, a steer-person, and a drummer who leads the synchronized paddling. I was intrigued enough to take it on!
Founding Empire Dragons NYC
As I spoke to breast cancer groups and classes at the hospital, the interest grew, and in 2009 we started the Empire Dragons NYC team. Without knowing what direction we would take, our philosophy was to include anyone who wanted to participate—we were just doing it!
Our first outing consisted of eight women I had recruited. We went to Flushing Bay, rented a boat and learned the stroke from my colleague and Co-Founder, James Lozada. In 2012, we became a 501c3 nonprofit and ran a fundraiser to generate the money needed to buy uniforms, two boats, maintenance of the boats, dock space and dry land in the winter. We hold a benefit event every two years. Since we held our last event at Sotheby’s in 2017, we were able to focus on racing this year.
The results have been amazing! Our Empire Dragons are focused on the joy they’ve found on the water, and the focus gives them a welcome respite from their illness. They realize that cancer does not limit them physically. The stroke is a strenuous, total body movement that, most importantly, moves the shoulders and upper body in such a way that mitigates the lymphedema many patients experience. The exercise makes them feel better about themselves for both physiological and psychological reasons. The team is a support group on water: they worry and care about each other.
Empire Dragons NYC has grown each year. In 2012, we had 30 people who started competing with other breast cancer teams. We now have 46 mostly breast cancer survivors, ages 40-75, and a few survivors of other cancers, including one man! Amazingly, some team members even participate while they are still undergoing chemotherapy. There are now 213 Breast Cancer teams around the world, and an international competition every four years. We became part of the International Breast Cancer Paddling Commission. At our first competition, Empire Dragons NYC finished 14th in the world!
This past summer (2018) Empire Dragons NYC participated in competition in Florence, Italy. The team showed great motivation and passion as they prepared; practicing four times a week and training hard. Our team looked beautiful in the boat in Italy. The dedication and hard work paid off, we won first place in the first of four 500-meter races with a time of 2 minutes and 25 seconds! It was thrilling! Overall, Empire Dragons placed sixth against 126 teams worldwide. The team’s motto is “spirit, strength, success”, and the members exemplify these attributes.
In addition to competing, Empire Dragons NYC has spearheaded efforts to clean up the waters in Queens where we practice. In collaboration with Riverkeeper and the New York City Dept. of Parks and Recreation, the team sponsors an annual clean-up of Flushing Bay in memory of one of the team’s founders, Jennifer Merendino,. The team also participates in other environmental initiatives including water quality testing and oyster gardening in collaboration with the New York City Water Trail Association and the Billion Oyster Project.
The Passion to Help
I want to be a motivating force, and to make a difference, in people’s lives. As a Clinical Fitness Specialist at MSKCC-IMC, I teach 8 classes a week, including one for men after prostate cancer, a boot camp for the team, and private sessions. I walk around the hospital in my exercise clothes talking about the benefits of exercise after a cancer diagnosis, thus motivating others to move. My motto is “keep moving.” I am in the best shape of my life! It isn’t hard to get up to go to work in the morning.
My passion is to change the world of cancer so that everyone with a cancer diagnosis will get a prescription to exercise throughout their treatment, as they do now in Australia. Patients who exercise through treatment feel and progress better. We now know that people should not go home and rest after cancer—they must be active. I’m now working with surgeons and others to advise people to walk a half mile a day when they get a diagnosis.
I am not a cancer survivor but the Empire Dragons, as well as, my other patients inspire me. I feel honored and blessed to be doing this work.