While Schmitz is fan of dragon boat racing -- and any activity that gets breast cancer patients up and moving -- she said a supervised weight-training program in which the weight is increased gradually over time might be a more judicious approach for many.
In a one-year study of more than 150 women led by Schmitz, weight lifters slashed their risk of developing arm swelling by 35 percent. Only 11 percent of the group developed lymphedema, compared with 17 percent of those in the nonexercising group. The women who'd had the most lymph nodes removed – five or more – experienced a nearly 70 percent risk reduction, with 22 percent of inactive participants developing lymphedema, compared with 7 percent in the exercising group.
Kathy Sponholtz, a nurse who is the Pink Paddling Team's adviser, said her coaches were very careful to ease new recruits into paddling, and so far, their paddlers have had few difficulties. She believes the benefits of dragon racing go far beyond reducing lymphedema to promote emotional health and boost self-esteem, areas of a women's life that often need just as much rehabilitation as the body after a bout of breast cancer.
"Back in China, there were thought to be demons in the water and the paddles would beat the demons," she explained. "The motivation for these women to participate is almost symbolic. They take this as a metaphor to beat their own demons."