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Racing the Dragon

by Judith Strasser

I used to be a cyclist. For nearly twenty years, until I was diagnosed with stomach cancer, I thought nothing of climbing on my bike and heading out for a hilly ride of thirty, forty, fifty miles or more. One summer, I joined friends on a five-hundred mile, week-long tour along the Wisconsin River from its northwoods headwaters to its outflow, at Prairie du Chien, into the Mississippi. Another summer, I biked from my home in Madison to Chicago and back . In 1999, I trained all summer so that I could join my son on the Boston to New York AIDS ride. I participated in several century (100 mile) rides in Door County, Wisconsin; my last training ride in 1999, before I shipped my bike east, was the Wright Stuff Century, 104 miles with 5,000 feet of elevation gain in the hilly unglaciated region to the south and west of Madison.

And nearly every Wednesday evening from April through September, for almost all those years, I did the Wednesday Night Bike Ride: 15 to 30 miles (depending on when the sun set) through the lush Wisconsin countryside. Those were magical evenings, the sun low and golden, the barns glowing red, the Holsteins along the fences mooing their greetings as we rode past. Wednesdays were sacrosanct; they were my exercise, my route to sanity, my social life. I couldn't imagine doing without them.

Until I couldn't do them any more. Despite surgery that removed the primary tumor and 80 per cent of my stomach, and more rounds of chemotherapy than I can count, the cancer spread--to my lungs. A tumor took up residence on my vagus nerve, the one that controls the larynx, and severely limited my ability to speak and breathe. Biking was pretty much out of the question; for a while, I could barely walk. Wednesday evenings held no magic, no joy.

And then I discovered TeamSurvivor Madison, a group of women cancer survivors dedicated to staying active, and the TeamSurvivor dragon boat program, and I knew I'd have to join. For one thing, paddling practice was something to do on Wednesday evenings. For another, it would get me out on the water. Long ago, when I was married, I lived on the shore of Madison's largest lake. I loved living on Lake Mendota, watching the sun set over the water, paddling a canoe along the shore. When I left my husband, I looked for a way to stay connected to the water. I tried rowing crew, but the competition made me feel like I was back in third grade gym class, uncoordinated, the last one anyone would choose for any team. Besides, we were instructed to focus exclusively on the top vertebra of the person sitting in front of us. Rowing crew was not the time to track a V of geese flying across Picnic Point or to admire the reflection of a thumbnail moon hanging over the water. I hated rowing crew.

I was afraid that dragon boating might be like rowing crew; that the other paddlers would be obsessed with winning races. And I wondered whether I'd have the aerobic capacity necessary to paddle. But my yearning for something physical to do on Wednesday nights overcame my worries. I discovered the TeamSurvivor women welcomed my participation, whatever shape I was, or wasn't, in. And I was thrilled, the first evening, to realize that I had enough breath to keep my paddle working until Nancy, our coach, called a break with the welcome command, "Let 'er ride."

I looked forward with eager anticipation to the Dragon Boat Festival in Superior, Wisconsin at the end of the summer. By coincidence, both my grown sons and their young women would come along to watch. And then, a few weeks before the festival, I got pneumonia. No matter, I thought. By the time of the Festival, I'd be recovered enough to paddle. And I was, sort of. In the morning race, I discovered, first, that neither my breath nor my energy was back to what passes for normal in my life these days. I had to take several short breaks during the three-minute (seemingly endless) sprint. And I also learned how fast my carefully-studied technique fell apart under pressure. But no matter. What a high! Still, I was happy that, either by chance or due to Nancy's subtle design, I was assigned to only one heat at Superior. I figured I'd have another chance to race at the Oshkosh regatta in September.

But that didn't happen, either. I came down with a second pneumonia just before Oshkosh, and on the race day I was still on antibiotics--in no shape to paddle or even root for TeamSurvivor.

Well, there's always next summer. And even if next summer doesn't happen for me, I have wonderful memories from practice. No cows--but the green heron that greeted us as we paddled our team's own dragon boat, for the very first time, back to its home on Lake Monona. The great blue heron that watched us work our way along the Mud Lake shore. The camaraderie with women who cared for each other more than they cared about winning races. The golden evenings, with the sun low in the sky and the swallows darting under the Beltline bridge, and the echoes of our call:

Who are we? TeamSurvivor.

Who are we? TeamSurvivor.

What do we do? Have fun!

Judith Strasser's fourth book, Facing Fear: Meditations on Cancer and Politics, Courage and Hope, has just been published. She is also the author of a memoir, Black Eye: Escaping a Marriage, Writing a Life, and of two poetry collections, The Reason/Unreason Project, which won the Lewis-Clark Press Expedition Award, and Sand Island Succession: Poems of the Apostles. She is co-editor (with Robin Chapman) of the anthology, On Retirement: 75 Poems. Judith is a 27-year survivor of Hodgkin's disease. She has been living (well!) with gastric cancer since January 2005. She writes about her life as a survivor on her weekly blog, In Lieu of Speech.