When Kathleen McCann was five months pregnant, her doctors confirmed her worst fear. The lump in her right breast was cancer.
They ordered a mastectomy for the 29-year-old mother-to-be.
“I thought it was a death sentence,” she recalled.
That was 15 years ago.
Nowadays, McCann, a hospital dentist, spends her spare time on the Willamette River crewing a dragon boat for the Portland Rose Festival competition June 7-8.
The 25 other women on the team all are breast cancer survivors.
They call themselves Pink Phoenix - pink for the ribbon symbolizing the battle against breast cancer, and phoenix for the fabled bird that rose from the flames to begin another long life.
Dragon boat racing began in China 2,400 years ago and has been a Rose Festival fixture since 1989. This year 91 teams will compete.
Pink Phoenix will face Abreast in a Boat, another team of breast cancer survivors from Vancouver, B.C.
McCann was among 60 women who responded to a letter from Dorothy Atwood, asking if they’d be interested in crewing a boat. Atwood, 41 paddled for six years. Her grandmother died of breast cancer. Her mother is a survivor.
She’d seen a blind dragon boat team in Vancouver and thought Portland could raise its social consciousness. She got the names from women who identified themselves as breast cancer survivors in September’s Run for the Cure.
“There’s incredible spirit in these women,” said Atwood, who serves as coach. “They’re normal women, with that special spark.”
“I’m not athletic at all - I’m a couch potato with sour cream, bacon and cheese,” laughed Lisa Tatom, 29, an English-as-a-second-language teacher. “We’re showing you can be out there having a perfectly normal life after surgery. You’re not as delicate as they tell you you are.”
Team members began working out in January at Nautilus Plus, which donated memberships through June. Paddling practice is Wednesday evenings and weekend mornings.
McCann likes the exercise.
“And I like the symbolic aspect of it. We’re reminding women who are worrying about cancer spreading that there’s still life to live. We’re desperate to save our lives, keep our lives - but let’s do something fun with it, too, not just stay home and worry.”
Gwen Foley is a 65-year-old pediatric nurse who lost her mother and grandmother to breast cancer. She had a mastectomy 17 years ago and says remaining positive is vital.
“I’m a crazy old lady who loves challenges,” Foley said. “You can be tired, but you get on the boat and you feel rejuvenated.”