The power of the paddle helps beat cancer

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By Kat Walsh

Twenty people sit side-by-side in a dragon-headed 42 foot-long vessel, paddling furiously to the beat of an insistent drummer – the “heartbeat” of the dragon-racing against a score of other like vessels and colorfully dressed teams.

It’s an unlikely image that harkens back to the Viking age, or previews an upcoming Hollywood release. But in reality, and in Beaufort, it is the sport of dragon boat racing.

A team-oriented support program for cancer patients, survivors and their families, dragon boat racing provides physical and psychological strength, lighthearted fun, camaraderie and competition – all perfect offsets to the seriousness of cancer and treatment.

Since 2012, the dragon boat races have been the main fundraiser for the Beaufort DragonBoat organization.

The teams are made up of both cancer survivors and supporters and the power of those paddlers – and the money they raise – goes far in fulfilling the organization’s mission to help cancer patients with needs they are unable to afford or for which they lack coverage.

Sometimes it’s a major expense, like rent. A recent case: A husband and wife were both diagnosed with cancer within months of each other.

“This couple, who ran their own business, had never needed assistance before in their whole lives, and suddenly, they don’t know how to meet rent,” said Connie Wegman, outreach coordinator.

Many times, the expense is minor but its impact is massive.

Wegman remembers the time she was asked to bring a patient a $25 BiLo card.

“You know, you probably saved that patient’s life,” the nurse said when Wegman showed up with the card. Turns out, the patient didn’t have the $25 co-pay to fill the prescription required to treat her infection. The infection went untreated and was spreading until salvation showed up in the form of a gift card.

And there’s times when there’s no expense involved.

“One of my first cases was a woman a with stomach cancer,” said Wegman. “Her toilet didn’t work and her septic needed to be pumped. We got a plumber out there to take care of it for free. Sometimes, it’s just putting people together.”

It is easy to forget that things can change so quickly for people once a cancer diagnosis is introduced.

“We’re there to help with the things that come in daily life and you think all is OK and then cancer hits and you think, ‘How am I going to meet my basic needs?’ ” said Wegman.

Since January, the organization has already helped 32 patients and their families.

The organization’s volunteers help in a number of ways: changing lightbulbs or air filters, providing gift cards for gas and groceries or transportation to chemotherapy treatments, or even just walking the dog.

“We try to be a good neighbor,” said Wegman.

“One thing we believe is that everyone is touched by cancer – either directly or through someone you know or love,” said Greg Rawls, past president and current marketing manager for Race Day.

The fourth annual DragonBoat Race Day will take place from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3, at Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.

“Last year we raised $68,000 after expenses,” said Rawls. “This year, because we are no longer under the Water Festival, our expenses are higher, so we hope to clear $50,000.”

For more information, visit www.dragonboatbeaufort.org.

Top photo: The Beaufort DragonBoat races are a fun way to raise money to benefit cancer patients. File photo.