It was spring of 2016, and Ingrid Bates got out of her car at Cultus Lake with butterflies in her stomach.
A couple dozen yards or so away she saw a group of women buzzing about, helping get long canoe-like boats out of a storage shed and into the water.
Even if you’re an outgoing person, meeting several strangers isn’t an easy thing, and as Ingrid walked down the slope toward the lake, she wondered how it would go.
As she got closer, the person who invited her gave her a big wave, and yelled out, ‘Oh look! Ingrid’s here.’
The anxiety started to fade.
Within minutes she was being introduced to women from all over the eastern Fraser Valley, and within the hour Ingrid was dragon boating for the first time.
All the women in her boat shared one thing in common. They had fought or were fighting cancer. This team, Spirit Abreast, was their way of rising above what they had faced and proving to themselves and others that cancer isn’t always a death sentence. For many in that boat, it was the start of a whole new life.
Ingrid was just emerging from a particularly tough battle with the disease.
First there was breast cancer, which required radiation and chemotherapy and a mastectomy. Bad as that was, she’d face much worse.
One per cent of chemotherapy patients develop acute myeloid leukemia, and Ingrid was part of that small and unfortunate group.
“I thought breast cancer was bad, but the leukemia, that was a whole different animal,” she says. “It was tough, physically and emotionally going through that.”
Ingrid required chemotherapy every day to blast away all of her white cells, effectively destroying her immune system. With no protection from infection, she developed c-difficile, a severe bacterial infection that landed her in the intensive care unit at Vancouver General Hospital.
There were extremely dark moments through her long ordeal, but from start to finish the Abbotsford woman never gave up and rarely faltered in her determination to beat cancer.
When she received a stem-cell transplant from her sister, Lorraine Reimer, Ingrid’s story finally took a turn for the better, and on her road to recovery she met a nurse who mentioned dragon-boating.
It was a doctor who first connected the sport to cancer when he noticed how well one of his patients was faring and credited the exercise and range of motion she was getting as a dragon boater. Although there are men and women of all ages who compete in dragon boating, the sport has since become synonymous with cancer thanks to groups like Spirit Abreast and Penticton’s famed Survivorship.
The dragon boating community has embraced it whole-heartedly.
“At several regattas, there are some wonderful ceremonies after a survivor race,” Ingrid says. “The boats pull up to the shoreline, and everyone who is at the regatta line the whole beach. They all have a pink carnation, including the ladies in the boats. They go through a fight song, a talk and a moment of silence and everyone throws their pink carnations out into the water.
“It’s very moving and the first time I did it, it was amazing.”
There can be hesitation, Ingrid admits, about spending time with a bunch of cancer survivors. There can be worry that too many conversations will center on the one thing you desperately want to leave behind.
“I know some ladies were afraid at first about being with other cancer survivors, or possibly getting to know someone you’re going to have to say goodbye to,” Ingrid admits. “We’re going to a funeral next week for one of our paddlers, someone I car-pooled with my first two years.
“But do we tell our stories? For sure. It’s cathartic to do that, but once that story’s told we’re back to business and we don’t dwell on it by any means. We’re living our lives and that’s why we’re out there. We’re not going to sit at home, in that dark place, feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Spirit Abreast makes a point of doing more than just dragon boating.
The team hikes together. They’ve gone white-water rafting. Ingrid marvels at it all when she’s sitting in a raft next to 60, 70 and 80 year old women, paddling on a frothing river.
“Seeing these ladies, they’re out there all the time and they just dig so hard,” she says. “It’s encouragement to keep a smile on your face in spite of what you might be going through and it’s amazing how positive people can be when they’re faced with a cancer diagnosis.
“When you’re with other positive people, you don’t have that cloud over your head and I think it makes a difference. Not necessarily with your results, but the way you react to things when they come up. You smile and you laugh and those things must create something in your body that helps you get through it.
“It’s something that heals you inside.”
Spirit Abreast is holding a Meet and Greet March 12 at the Sardis Library. Come out and meet the team between 7 and 8:30 p.m.
Spirit Abreast welcomes paddlers of all ages who’ve battled breast cancer or supported others in their fight.
For more info visit spiritabreast.org