JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A team of 24 local women will compete Saturday and Sunday during the International Breast Cancer Paddlers’ Commission Dragon Boat Festival in New Zealand. Every member of the teams selected to participate in the competition is a breast cancer survivor.
The members of Team Mammoglams, founded by Jeri Millard, have been training for five years for the event, which was delayed by the pandemic.
Millard, founder of In The Pink, a nonprofit organization created to help cancer survivors, founded the Jacksonville Dragon Boat Club to offer a support system to breast cancer survivors. The club is located at Beach Marine off Beach Boulevard and practices in the Intracoastal Waterway.
“It really has become the best support group I can imagine,” said Millard. “We know the type of healing that can take place on the water.”
Dragon Boat paddling has become a rehabilitation therapy for women and men around the world who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Paddlers sit forward facing in a boat designed like a dragon. The pace is set by a drummer, who is positioned facing the paddlers at the bow of the boat. A steersperson stands in the stern, using an oar, to control the boat’s direction. Boats have either 20 or 10 paddlers.
Wykina Harris has been a member of Team Mammoglams since 2019. She joined as she finished treatment for breast cancer, a diagnosis that shook her to her core.
“I have a large family and nobody ever had any type of breast cancer at all,” she explained. “I’m the first one.”
Harris had been perfectly healthy -- a military veteran who exercised was a vegetarian and had just turned 40 years old -- when she was diagnosed after her doctor suggested she be screened for breast cancer since the screening age starts at 40.
The breast cancer diagnosis triggered a flood of emotions for the single mother.
“My first mind was, I would not see my baby graduate,” she explained tearfully. “He was in the 11th grade so I was like, I know I have to do this for my baby. I know I have to do this for him and I need to do it for me. I still wanna live.”
Harris spent months receiving treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation, a lumpectomy, and breast reduction surgery.
“It was rough, it was rough,” she said. “I tell everybody, ‘Make sure you have positive people around you, you don’t want to have any negativity.’”
She said her family and friends were her rock.
Harris also found a unique form of support when she discovered the Dragon Boat Paddle Club.
“They were so welcoming,” she explained about meeting the group for the very first time.
The team is serious about its competition, but during training breaks, they are each other’s support system.
“We’re sisters. There’s an immediate bond,” Millard said.
Both women said time spent on the water in the boat is therapeutic and peaceful. While paddling may look hard, both said anyone can do it, regardless of age. They have a team member who is in her 80s.
When asked what the secret is to paddling, Harris said, “‘Dancing,’ as coach Drew would say, ‘It’s like we’re all dancing to the same beat.’”
Wykina is excited about competing in New Zealand. She is in remission and was there when her son graduated from high school.
Team Mammoglams will compete on Lake Karapiro in Cambridge, New Zealand, starting Saturday. The festival involves 240 IBCPC member teams from 30 countries. Team Mammoglams is the only team in Jacksonville.
They are always looking for more team members. If you are interested, you can learn more here: https://www.mammoglams.com/.