Finding sisterhood in breast cancer survivorship

By Skylar Rispens
Seeley Swan Pathfinder

SEELEY LAKE – Nearly seven years after Seeley Lake resident Gayle Gordon was diagnosed with breast cancer she has found a sisterhood to help her navigate survivorship. 
Gordon first heard about the group of women through a friend and fellow breast cancer survivor in Missoula, Mont. Gordon’s friend Stacey Vetter encouraged her to become involved in the Silver Lining Foundation. 
“I have found a lot of people who aren’t just down in the dumps. They are positive, they are supportive, they are so full of love,” said Gordon. “I love these chicks, they are so fun to be around.” 
The Silver Lining Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit that was founded in 2015 by five women who met in chemotherapy for breast cancer treatment. The group is aimed at providing support for women in the Missoula area and Western Montana that have been afflicted by breast cancer.
“We never planned this [foundation] to happen,” said Nancy Condit, Silver Lining Foundation president. “The universe just sort of handed us this message [of survivorship], and it’s just our way of giving back to the other girls. We all understand the necessity for survivorship tools and nobody understands that best unless you’ve already been through it.”
Since 2015, the group has blossomed to provide a wide variety of options to build a support system for survivors. According to its website, the group is home to nearly 180 members. The Silver Lining Foundation offers members a variety of activities such as monthly gatherings with educational speakers and weekly hikes. The foundation also offers a morning coffee hour twice a month as well as weekly dragon boat practices on Salmon Lake throughout the summer. 

Gordon attended her first event last spring and wasn’t sure how often she could attend the group’s events because the Silver Lining Foundation is rooted in Missoula. Now, she jumps on any opportunity to support them. She volunteers at fundraisers and tries to attend as many presentations as she can. She even travelled to Flathead Lake to cheer on the dragon boat team at a competition last summer. This summer she hopes to try her hand at dragon boating. 
“In order to heal from this situation, you need to get out there and you need to stay active,” said Gordon. “I had already pretty much put [breast cancer] in my past, but it’s nice to become active in something you believe in and see a purpose in.”

For many years, women were not encouraged to engage in physical activity after being diagnosed with breast cancer, however, research from Dr. Don McKenzie proved otherwise. In 1996, McKenzie conducted research on the impact of exercise and breast cancer with a group of women that exercised regularly in a dragon boat. From his studies, he concluded that regular exercise can reduce the risk of recurrence by up to 40 percent. Following McKenzie’s work, dragon boating soared in popularity among breast cancer survivors and there are over 220 breast cancer survivor teams internationally. 
“We [Silver Lining Foundation] use dragon boating as a venue to continue to support our philosophy that exercise is medicine,” said Condit. 
Dragon boating is a popular international team canoe-sport and is rooted in ancient Asain culture. It rose in modern popularity in Hong Kong during the 1970s and will make its Olympic exhibition debut in the Tokyo games of 2020. 
The unique boats look like canoes, but are stretched to be 40 feet long and can hold 20 paddlers at a time. The Silver Lining Foundation purchased two of their own boats this past year for the 2019 racing season, the boats are white with pink accents that look like dragon’s scales. The boats cost between $7,000-$10,000 apiece. According to Condit, the foundation has a core group of 40-50 paddlers. 
The team carpools from Bonner to Salmon Lake for practice on the water.They are currently training for competitions in Alberta and Big Fork for the Montana Dragon Boat Race & Festival. The core group of dragon boat paddlers train together year ’round on dry-land with weight training. According to Condit, the group has its eyes set on competing in New Zealand one day. 
“We just keep moving forward, I’m sure we are going to change and evolve but the core is going to be the dragon boating,” said Condit. “When we go overseas we’re going to be prepared … it’s about survival, but there’s also a fair bit of competition in there too that drives us.”
The Silver Lining Foundation now offers team building exercises with the dragon boats for interested parties. The group will host its first event on Placid Lake with D.A. Davidson & Co. of Missoula on June 27. 
According to Mark Nicholson, a financial consultant of D.A. Davidson & Co., they reached out to the dragon boating team to build comradery within their company, while also supporting their employees who have been afflicted by breast cancer. Nicholson is excited to be able to provide financial support to the Silver Lining Foundation.
“They are some outstanding women, and those ladies need a lot of support emotionally, physically and financially,” said Nicholson. “We as a firm here at D.A. Davidson decided that’s one thing we could support the community and some ladies within our office.” 
According to Gordon, the group has created more than just a network of support for women afflicted by breast cancer. The Silver Lining Foundation regularly shares conclusive information about breast cancer treatment and ways to prevent recurrence with members.
Condit added, “We want to survive, but we want to thrive.”

The Silver Lining Foundation hosted its Eye Dotting Ceremony on June 9 at Salmon Lake State Park. The purpose of the ceremony is to “awaken the dragon” for the season ahead. According to ancient dragon boating customs, the ceremony is typically performed when the dragon boats are first returned to service and again just prior to racing. 
Keeping to customs, the dragon boat team must choose a date by consulting a Chinese calendar as there are “good and bad” dates. Those performing the ceremony must have red paint, a brush, incense, “symbolic hell money” to burn in an open container, edible goods that a dragon might appreciate and a tablecloth.
At the ceremony, the group must “sacrifice the dragon” by placing the tablecloth, with edible goods, in front of the dragon. Next, someone important to the team holds the burning incense in their hands and bows to the dragon three times and to the water three times. Ceremony attendees may also participate in the bowing. Following the series of bows, the “hell money” is meant to be burned. According to ancient customs, these acts show respect to the dragon and the spirits of the water. 
Next, a team member will awaken the dragon by dotting five points on the dragon’s face with red paint–the center of each eye, the tongue and the tip of each horn. According to the custom, painting the eyes gives the dragon sight, the tongue gives it taste and the horns give it power. After awakening the dragon, the crew loads the boat and position it to go backwards, then sprints forwards, to symbolize the dragon bowing to the audience. This motion is to be done three times. Finally, the dragon is ready to be shown around on its water venue. This allows the dragon and the spirits of the water to become introduced and know where it will be moving around.

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