Cervical Cancer Survivor Tells Her Story: A Dragon Changed My Life

Susan Shaw, cervical cancer survivor

Susan Shaw is an award-winning artist and writer. Her artwork is in public collections around the world. She discovered she had cervical cancer in 2013 and had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Now recovered, she joined the Empire Dragon Boat Team three years ago and is in the best shape of her life.


This story originally appeared in Bridges, MSK’s newsletter for cancer survivors. Bridges offers a forum in which patients and their families can share stories of inspiration and hope, and of the challenges that can accompany a cancer journey. Learn more about how to receive Bridges and how to submit your story here.

I tried to keep in shape during treatment because I realized how important it was — is — to try to keep myself as strong as possible. Every day after radiation I would make myself walk to the gym and take a water aerobics class. It was wonderful to feel the cool water week after week as the radiation burn built up. Very weak after treatment, I worked with a personal trainer to build up strength. I looked around for more sports to try. At one of the survivorship celebrations, I discovered that MSK has a dragon boat team that practices on the water in Flushing Bay. A dragon boat holds 22 people: 20 paddlers, a drummer (to keep us all in sync), and a helmsperson. We don’t just practice; during the summer we race in events up and down the Northeast corridor. On Wednesday evenings and Saturday mornings, the team goes out on the water for training. We practice hard, paddling all around Flushing Bay. It’s quite a workout; you have to push with your legs; you bend and twist, extending your arms; you use your core and back muscles to pull the paddle to make the boat glide. Flushing Bay deserves its name because it is the recipient of what is called CSO, combined sewage overflow. But it’s water.

Dragon boat racing is a sport that started in China but spread worldwide via Canada, where doctors recognized how the act of paddling could help breast cancer survivors regain their strength. Breast cancer survivors have their own women’s division to race in, and this year the Empire Dragon Boat Team started a mixed gender, mixed survivors of cancer boat. We have six paddlers so far (I am one of them) and can accommodate 16 more to become New York City’s first ever ACS (all cancer survivors) racing boat.

The evening practices are my favorite. We paddle until the sun goes down. We bought a new boat that is solid red, the red shade of vintage cars they used to call candy-apple red. One evening I noticed how the reflected light colored the paddlers’ hands. It was a transcendent moment. I thought the red hands represented the blood of a beating heart. When we are paddling together in sync, we are pumping that life blood through the team, and the dragon’s beating heart is keeping body and spirit alive.

If you are interested in learning more about the Empire Dragon Boat Team, please contact Donna Wilson at empiredragonsinfo@gmail.com.


I love this story and Susan or “Shaw” as we call her. She is an amazing teammate but moreso an amazing person. So glad to know her. What a strong and inspirational paddler.

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