The Dragon Boater
Alyx Stewart, 46, thought fitness was a pipe dream after breast cancer. But taking a chance on a sport she'd never heard of changed her entire world view.
It's been more than 10 years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer on September 28, 2005. It was actually nine weeks before my wedding - not how I'd recommend doing it. I was never particularly sporty beforehand, but after having my mastectomy I was told to be careful of lifting anything heavy, not to do anything too vigorous or repetitive, because there was a rick of lymphoedema (build-up of excess fluid) Fitness was a bit of a dream. I was so ingrained in the belief that I couldn't exercise after cancer, it was a really difficult mindset to break.
About two years ago, I was doing a community liaison course with Breast Cancer Network Australia, and heard a woman speaking about the dragon boat team she was part of. I'd never been remotely interested in water sports, and had never even heard of dragon boating, but this seemed soo oddball that I was curious enough to try it. Pardon the pun, but I took to it like a duck to water! There was such a great vibe and it was absolutely amazing to see all these women who were cancer survivors doing it.
There are about 30 active members on our team, but the numbers wax and wane depending on age or if there is a recurrence of cancer. there's a real sense of camaraderie. The way we put it is a bit cheesy, but we say we've all been in the same boat. The team isn't purely made up of breast cancer survivors; we have supporters and partners in our boat as well. A lot of the time we don't consider ourselves a sporting team, rather an awareness team. When we're out at a regatta, people notice we're wearing pink and we tell them we're breast cancer survivors. Most people are usually in total awe of what we do. And I feel exactly the same way about my comrades in the boat.
We head out on the water at docklands in Melbourne once or twice a week, but always on a Sunday morning. Training is about an hour long and getting the boat in the water first is a workout on its own! We compete in as many regattas as possible, some in Melbourne and around Australia, but we've also competed in America and this September out team is taking part in the Great River Race in London. After that, we're heading to Dublin to compete in the annual Dublin International!
Taking up dragon boating was the start of a fitness journey. It was a real eye opener that perhaps I could become fitter, that perhaps it was time to pull my finger out. So when my husband and I were about to head on holiday for our 10th wedding anniversary, I decided to make my fitness journey a priority, and started doing bootcamp as well.
Now I do that five or six times a week. I come home from the sessions and glow with pride. I can't do push-ups due to my double mastectomy - they're not worth the pain and swelling - so the trainers always modify exercises like that for me. I get such a pure enjoyment from the group workouts and mastering the exercises.
Getting fit changed my whole mindset. I realise now that if I want something, I just need to start and stay focused on my goal. I used to be quite shy when it comes to work and business, but now I'm much more forward because I've got a lot more confidence in myself. That's what fitness has meant to me. And it's spilling over into every area of my life. I value myself more. If I can be fit, then I can stop making excuses and start being accountable.
A lot of girls I know from my breast cancer groups have passed away, some really good friends, and I feel I owe it to them to live a full and active life. That really drives me. My goals are to just keep on doing what I'm doing, and to find ways to push myself. To maintain my health and be able to take in lungs full of air. I used to be Mrs I-Hate-Running, but I'm now Mrs I-Like-Running. I even completed a 16-kilometre run in March without stopping to walk once, so now I'm aiming for a half marathon in October!
It's been quite tough on occasion, but my philosophy now is I only get out what I put in. There's been a few times where I've whispered to myself "suck it up". If nothing else, you should exercise for the feel-good factor. The tiniest of achievements is an achievement. Set a goal for each day's training or exercise. It doesn't have to be huge. You should strive to challenge your beliefs about yourself. Even if you have a physical restriction, there's always something you can do. You have to find it and the only way to find it is by getting up everyday and looking for it.
I love being 46. I wouldn't swap it for anything now, and I believe the rubbish that has gone on in my life was meant to be there so I could get to this point. It's made me so strong, emotionally and mentally, and I attribute some of it to making me physically strong too. To be honest, I've never been happier.
Dragons Abreast Australia is the national body for paddling after breast cancer in Australia. Visit their site to find out how dragon boating for breast cancer came about.