In this photo from January 2020, the Cebu Pink Paddlers row on the Mactan Channel in Cebu.
Philstar.com/Efigenio Toledo IV
On World Cancer Day, a champion dragon boat team of survivors creates ripples of hope, courage
Efigenio Toledo IV, Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - February 4, 2020 - 9:00am

CEBU, Philippines (Updated 3:53 p.m.)  — It was the Sinulog weekend and Cebu was buzzing with tourists for the festival that draws in hundreds of thousands. 

The dawn of Thursday of that week, the Cebu Yacht Club was also buzzing with excitement but the chatter did not come from tourists exploring the Queen City of the South at an ungodly hour. It came from the Cebu Pink Paddlers gearing up for their dragon boat training.

It was still dark, making it difficult to make out faces but the members of the Cebu Pink Paddlers greeted each other with “Pit Senyor” and “Happy New Year!” There were occasional bursts of the chorus of Sarah Geronimo’s “Tala” in between too.

The commanding voice of their coach sent these ladies into a more serious mood as they start training. After the sun had risen, the Cebu Pink Paddlers set out for the Mactan Channel, the morning sun in january boring down their backs in the morning.

Up close they are your usual aunts and mothers—chatty, funny and alert.

On the water, they are the athletes who bagged two golds in a dragon boat competition in Taiwan in 2017. There is no trace that, a few years back, each of the members of this team had a brush with mortality when they found out they had cancer. 

A few years ago, they had weeks when they could not lift their arm in fear that it would tear their healing wound from a surgery that removed their breast; that they spent months undergoing chemotherapy that would not let them keep their food down and would sap their energy, glueing them to their beds.

On the water, the Cebu Pink Paddlers is a team that wants to win more golds, fully abled and healthier competitors be damned.

And here, they tell their stories of strength and hope:

TEOFILA LADERA

64 | Three years survivor

Teofila thought there would not no longer be any more twists in her life: She had been working for 37 years when she hit 60. She was ready to retire, when she was told she had cancer.

So when told after beating breast cancer that she could join a dragon boat team, she thought "it does not seem right." After all, she had a major surgery to remove a breast and she is in her retirement days.

But when Teofila joined the Pink Paddlers, she understood their purpose: To help other cancer survivors accept their new reality.

She is most grateful for her teammates because she enjoys being with them and her team shares the feeling. Teofila would occasionally burst into Sarah Geronimo’s “Tala” and elicit laughter from her team mates. She says: “There is no dull moment.”

“I am okay,” she smiles.

MARIA LIBERTY RAÑOA

52 | Nine years survivor

Never in Liberty’s wildest imagination did she think she could become a dragon boat athlete after she survived cancer. She had a mastectomy and endured six cycles of chemotherapy, 30 days of radiation and another 18 cycles of targeted chemotherapy.

 It was tough, she says, but three years since she first tried dragon boat, Liberty now leads a team of paddlers as the captain.

When racing, she shares they would hear comments: “What? Those are breast cancer survivors? Competing with a regular, younger team?”

“It felt like we give inspiration to people looking at us.”

“So we tried to tell the world: There is still beautiful life after breast cancer diagnosis.”

CHRISTIAN IAN SY

32 | Coach

When he first met the team, Ian only had three months to train and coach the Cebu Pink Paddlers before their first international competition in Taiwan. They told him that dragon boat for them was not just a hobby, “they wanted to win.”

“I would chide them: You’re like Miss Universe!” He tells them that they are not just representing the Philippines but cancer survivors too.

As a coach, he says he needed get to know the stories of each member—to know how to handle potential problems—and he would always end up in tears.

He shares that they would always tell him that “their lives were put on pause; their confidence was cut,” but dragon boat changed that.

“Before they were embarrassed that they are cancer survivors, but now they are proud: Yes, I am a cancer survivor. Look at me now. Rowing. Full of life. Not a trace of what we went through.”

ELEONOR MERCADO

48 | Three years survivor

Eleonor was incredulous when her oncologist told her she should try dragon boat. She had never led an active lifestyle or had tried any sport. She just had a major surgery. At home, she was not allowed to do the laundry or cook, “like a princess!”

But her doctor just laughed back at her and urged her to try it.

When she tried dragon boat for the first time, Eleonor said something happened. The numbness in her arm, due to her surgery, was gone.

From then on, she shares: “My perspective from being a housewife has been modified by my whole life now as a paddler. I love my daily routine since paddling.”

EDEN PALUCA

41 | Six years survivor

Eden was living her dream, seeing the world as a member of a cabin crew coming home to her husband and two-year-old son.

Then a rude awakening: She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to quit. She withdrew from the world as her emotions crashed around her.

On the day before her birthday in 2019, “a whole new world came.” It was dragon boat.

“It’s a challenge because after diagnosis... all the emotions, all those unpleasant emotions you carry, and then you see your sisters. So, if they can do it, why can’t I?”

“I’m very proud because, hey, I already have a sport that I can be proud of because not everybody can do dragon boat,” Eden says.

CLARISSE MARIE MARCELINO

30 | Four years survivor

Clarisse went through her “cancer journey” alone. She only told a handful of friends when she found out she had breast cancer, stage 0. It was something very personal, the time when she felt lonely, vulnerable and weak.

She was only 26, and her doctor told her she got the “type of cancer for older women.” It took six months for her to decide on undergoing a mastectomy. After the surgery, she thought her "cancer journey" was ending.

“No one told me that you will have to deal with body issues. [The] constant fear that maybe it will come back, and the frustration that maybe you’re not living life to the fullest,” she shares.

So when she first joined the team practice for dragon boat and met with women who share her story, she was overwhelmed. When they tapped her on the back and told her “Welcome to the team!,” it took strength not to break down.

Coach Christian said their youngest in the team is still very shy, but she said this with firm, calm voice: “I fell in love first with the people before the sport.”

“It’s the bonding, and then they inspire you.”

SHARON RODRIGUEZ

48 | Eight years survivor

Sharon already “forgot the feeling of having a body that is light” until she tried dragon boat.

She admitted that dragon boat is not easy. Her body aches after training and the sport demands perseverance, endurance, trust, focus and commitment.

Dragon boat offered a way for her to keep healthy after beating cancer eight years ago, and joining the Cebu Pink Paddlers team means being with women who are an “inspiration” and who are "stronger than cancer."

“God has given me a second life and I planned to live it better, longer and happier—to still run at 60 years old and to live it at least until I am 80 years old,” she says.

CHERYL BOLO

48 | Six years survivor

Cheryl had been working, living for her three children since 2008 when she lost her husband.

Learning that she had cancer sent waves upon waves of fear. Her youngest was only seven then. But she told herself: “I have no option but to be strong for them.”

Now, her youngest is in Grade Seven in school, she proudly says. Cheryl admitd that there is still fear because they do not know when life would end. “Anytime. We just don’t know,” she shares.

But Cheryl says that being with her team made her a “resilient, confident woman.”

“Paddle for hope. Paddle for life.”

MARICHU ENRIQUEZ DUMORAN

56 | 10 years survivor

It only took one try for Marichu to fall in love with dragon boat. “From then on, I was unstoppable,” she says.

It takes Marichu four hours to travel to Cebu from her home in Bogo City to join the training for the team, but she does not mind.

Doing dragon boat removed the pain from her lower back and kept her healthy.

More than the health benefits, it brought back her confidence. “Through paddling my body began to do a lot of changes. It changed my lifestyle into a good habit.”

“It convinced me to go forward.”

ROSALIE COBRE VALENTINO

54 | Nine years survivor

Going through a difficult time made Rosalie realize the inner strength she possessed. She became determined to change things.

After being introduced to dragon boat, the sport became a passion for Rosalie. "I'm really in love," she gushes.

"When there is training, I'm excited to go. When there is no training, I like looking at how my body has improved," she shares.

"This challenging sport is not only for strong and abled persons but for a survivor like me. I believe I am strong. There are no limitations to what we can do if you have the courage and determination to do it," she adds.

SARAH JANE VILLEGAS

51 | Eight years survivor

Dragon boat made Sarah Jane more grateful for her life. Before, she skipped meals and stressed over her work. Five years after treatment, she told herself she needed to go into a sport. 

With dragon boat, time seems to have slowed down for her. "Despite the demands of city life, I make sure that I would be able to spend time enjoying and appreciating nature around me."

After joining the team, she became determined to encourage other women to do the same. 

She says they formed the group "because we wanted to help and educate other women that rather than staying in the four corners of a room, go out and explore because life is so short."

MARY ANNE BOJOS

49 | Five years survivor

Mary Anne's favorite moment as  a dragon boat athlete is during the race competition. One of the founding members of the Cebu Pink Paddlers, she stresses: "Paddling is a teamwork that requires strength and support from each member. Each one is really dependent on the other."

But during dragon boat races, she forgets she went through a difficult time. 

When they are up against teams of able-bodied, healthy athletes, "those who are not breast cancer survivors."

"It's as if you forget that you have gone in your sickness. You'll think that you are in the same level because you are all paddling, using the same tool," she said proudly.

"You feel like, 'I'm an athlete.'"

MARIA AIZA LEPON

41 | Four years survivor 

In 2018, years after she was diagnosed with cancer, Aiza took on the challenge. She joined the All Women Ultramarathon and finished a 50K marathon in more than 10 hours.

A few weeks after achieving this feat, she was invited to try dragon boat. It was another challenge. But when she went to her very first sea training, she found herself enjoying.

Aiza lives a bit far from Cebu City where the Pink Paddlers train, but she does not mind the “strenuous travel.”

“I like paddling. I love the water. I love the sea. I love the beach,” she professes.

“Every time you go on paddling, you’re surrounded by the water, so it’s really nice,” Aiza adds.

MIRASOL VIÑAS

38 | Five years survivor

When Mirasol was invited by a fellow breast cancer survivor to try paddling for dragon boat, she only did so “for fun.”

“So we tried out for one afternoon and then we know it. If you love water, then it will be a process. So we went back and then created the team,” she says.

She never dreamt of competing in local and international races as a dragon boat athlete when she signed up, but being with Cebu Pink Paddlers brought her to international waters and gave her motivation too.

“It helped me forget that I have this cancer instead it even gives me motivation to show to the world that there is much better life after diagnosis,” Mirasol says.

VIVIAN BORROMEO

56 | Nine years survivor

Joining a dragon boat team had always been on Vivian’s bucket list, but she never found time to do it.

Then the opportunity to tick it off was presented to her in an unlikely place: At Breast Cancer Chat session.

When Vivian first tried paddling for the dragon beat team, it was at 3:00 in the afternoon. It was scorching, but she did not mind.

“It was hot, but for me, I felt comfortable with it. I felt comfortable with the water,” she says. Even though she was clumsy with the paddle, Vivian said that “it felt right.”

She adds that with the Cebu Pink Paddlers, she found a “greater sense of purpose and belonging.” With her team, she realized they can tell the world that cancer survivors can be even stronger.

Editor's note: The trip to Cebu was made possibly with logistical support from OCEANA Philippines, which is campaigning to end single-use plastic that is a major source of pollution in the world's oceans.

At no stage did the host organization have a say on the stories generated from the coverage, interviews conducted, publication date and story treatment. Content is produced solely by Philstar.com following editorial guidelines.

DRAGON BOAT WORLD CANCER DAY
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