Paddling Past Cancer...Twice

Organization: Service: Story Topics:
Breast Cancer, Cancer, Women’s Health

In 1997, Sharon was diagnosed with cancer for the first time at 44-years-old. Sharon regularly had routine mammograms because both her mother and grandmother had breast cancer. She was diagnosed with stage 0 ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) – a non-invasive cancer found in the lining of the breast milk duct. Because of her family history, Sharon decided to have a double mastectomy. The aggressive surgery meant Sharon needed no chemotherapy or radiation, and she thought her cancer journey was complete.

In 2010, while Sharon was walking along Mother’s Beach in Long Beach wearing a “Save the Ta-Tas” shirt, she was approached by a woman. She asked if Sharon was a survivor, and when she said yes, Sharon was invited to participate in the Los Angeles Pink Dragons – California’s first breast cancer survivor dragon boat racing team. A dragon boat is a boat of traditional Chinese design and propelled with paddles by a large crew. Each race includes 20 paddlers, a front drummer and a back steersman, but the entire team has 40 members.

“The Pink Dragons are my passion,” says Sharon. “My Pink sisters just ‘get me.’ A simple hug lets me know that they understand. Nothing soothes my soul quite as much as climbing into that boat with my sisters and gliding on to the water.”

Just four years after joining the Pink Dragons, Sharon’s team was with her during her second breast cancer diagnosis. During a routine appointment with her gynecologist, her physician recommended doing a breast MRI. The MRI revealed cancer in eight lymph nodes in her left breast.

Sharon’s multi-disciplinary care team of physicians, radiation therapists, physicist, nurses, social workers and support staffed developed a treatment plan to meet her needs. At the Thomas & Dorothy Leavey Radiation Oncology Center at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute, she received six rounds of chemotherapy over five months, and 28 straight days of radiation. After the treatments, the lymph nodes were removed and none were positive – meaning that the chemotherapy got rid of it.

“A second breast cancer diagnosis is quite common in women who are initially diagnosed with DCIS,” says Linda Chan, M.D., radiation oncologist, Long Beach Medical Center. “There are a new set of fears that come with a recurrence, so we work closely with the patient and their family to create the best treatment plan, including psychosocial support.”

After this part of her cancer journey, Sharon volunteered to be a peer mentor with the Women Guiding Women: Cancer Support & Education™ Program at Long Beach Medical Center. Women Guiding Women is a unique program that connects newly diagnosed breast and gynecologic cancer patients with specially trained survivors.

“I was hesitant to participate because many new cancer survivors don’t want to hear that there could be a recurrence,” says Sharon. “But I was paired with a woman who had a recurrence, and it was great to share stories and know that someone else has been on this journey. Women Guiding Women reminds you that you aren’t alone.”

Today, Sharon continues to complete with the Los Angeles Pink Dragons. The team travels to other states and competes against other breast cancer teams, as well as participates in local dragon boat races. The youngest member of the Pink Dragons is 40, and the oldest is 79. They live all over Southern California and come together twice a week for practice and races.

“Together, we are warriors,” says Sharon. “I’m thankful for everyone I’ve met on this journey. From my yoga survivors’ class at Long Beach Medical Center to my care team, everyone is so positive and embracing.”

Featured physician:

Linda W. Chan, MD

Medical Director, Radiation Oncology, MemorialCare Cancer Institute at Saddleback Medical Center
Specialties:
  • Radiation Oncology