Rowing for health


Indianapolis breast cancer survivor group continues to row and grow

By Ann Craig-Cinnamon

The light rain falling on Geist Marina didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the more than 40 women gathered there for their three-time-per-week practice. They stood under a group of trees performing warm-up exercises using their brightly painted pink oars. This is a hardy group that has faced down death so a little rain is not going to stop them. And on this day, the First Lady of Indiana was coming to participate with them.

They are members of Indy SurviveOars, which is basically a floating support group for breast cancer survivors, which explains the pink paddles and the sea of pink wardrobe worn by the participants.

Yopi Havlik, Fishers, a breast cancer survivor and the Vice President of Indy SurviveOars, says the group was formed seven years ago and continues to grow.

“We have people from all parts of town, from all walks of life and all different stages. We have people who are in treatment and people who have been out of treatment for a long period of time. Dragon boating was started for breast cancer survivors in Canada as a way to reduce lymphedema which is an arm swelling due to surgical removal of lymph nodes,” she says.

Dragon boat racing is actually an ancient sport but a Canadian doctor by the name of Don McKenzie started using it for rehabilitation back in 1996 as a way to test his theory that following a special exercise and training program would improve the quality of life of breast cancer patients. He was correct and since then, hundreds of breast cancer survivors around the world have formed dragon boat teams to paddle and race. Indy SurviveOars is the first, and until recently the only, team to be formed in Indiana and now has more than 50 active members.

Sarah Demmon also lives in Fishers and is an Indy SurviveOars coach. She says she joined in 2008 and the group has been great for her.

“It’s done benefits for me. I have had ten surgeries. I started as a paddler before I coached. Before I couldn’t lift my arms above my head but slowly through this workout I was able to loosen up that scar tissue and get full range of motion back,” Demmon says. “I was never a support group kind of girl. But going into this, the sport aspect is what really attracted me first; the competition. This is a number of Type A girls that really go after it, so they’re not sitting around wallowing and feeling like a victim. They’re really going after it. Basically this activity is a way to get back at the cancer. You are defying what is happening to your body.”

Another Fishers resident, Elizabeth Anderson, is in her second year as an Indy SurviveOar member.

“I’m a young breast cancer survivor. I was diagnosed at 33 so there aren’t many young people my age that are survivors. So, I had a friend that’s been in this group and she’s actually a young survivor too. Once you join there’s no questions about it, you just feel like you belong and it’s a great support group. It’s a group that if you don’t want to talk about your feelings, you don’t have to. We’re just here for camaraderie,” she says.

Havlik was diagnosed in 2002 at the age of 34 and credits her participation with IndySurviveOars as the reason she is living a normal life now.

“It has been everything for me. It’s so hard when after you are done with all your treatment and life doesn’t ever go back to where it exactly was and so you search for something new to be normal and this has been fabulous. It’s a group of women that I never would have met otherwise without having had cancer. We’re all very different but yet we have such a similar experience, so we have that immediate bond. It’s something to look forward to, keeps us in better health which lowers your chance of reoccurrence and it’s just wonderful,” she says.

Indiana First Lady Karen Pence, who recently had a bout with skin cancer, was excited to join the group in paddling on July 30.

“These women are an inspiration to us all. What they have gone through, and they come up smiling and encouraging each other, they come out and exercise three times a week and it’s just phenomenal,” she says.

Indy SurviveOars practices three days a week on Monday, Wednesdays and Saturdays from April through October at Geist and in the off-season they hold Rowbics classes and paddle on the side of the indoor pool at Lawrence North High School. They participate in three or four races every summer outside of the Indianapolis area and just finished second at a race in Chicago.

You don’t have to be a breast cancer survivor to participate. Volunteers, donations and sponsorships are all needed to help lndy SurviveOars grow. The group holds several fundraisers every year to raise money for equipment, meets, entry fees and insurance. For more information, visit

What is dragon boat racing?

Dragon boat racing began more than 2,000 years ago in China and eventually made its way to North America in the 1980s. Now considered the fastest growing team water sport in the world, it features sleek, slender boats decorated with dragon heads and propelled by 20 paddlers working in unison. The drummer beats out the pace, while a steer oarsperson guides the dragon boat on its course. The lndy SurviveOars dragon boat is 50 feet in length and carries several distinctions. The Indiana boat is the first pink dragon boat that long-time boat manufacturer, Swift Dragon Boats of China, has ever made. The boat’s bow and stern are the first in the world to be custom-designed and painted pink.