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Cancer survivors paddle to the finish at boat festival; After competing with breast cancer, women race again

Thirty breast cancer survivors sat on dragon boats in the water at Gallagher Beach on Saturday, swaying pink carnations above their heads to the tune of "Wind Beneath My Wings."

It was a tribute to their friends who passed away during or after fighting the disease.

The carnation ceremony marked the middle of the day at the first Hope Chest Buffalo Niagara Dragon Boat Festival. About 30 local organizations participated in the day of dragon boat racing at the beach on Buffalo's outer harbor.

"It's so inspiring to be out there with survivors. It's nice to see the community come out and support us," said Michele Vitall of Williamsville, a 10-year member of Hope Chest, a support organization for breast cancer survivors that focuses on healing and empowerment through physical fitness.

The women have put that mission to action through dragon boat racing. Dragon boats are 44-foot canoe-shaped boats that fit 20 rowers, who paddle to the beat of a drum. One person stands in the back of the boat to steer.

The muscles required in dragon boat racing help rebuild upper body strength and mobility in women who have survived breast cancer. Exercising those muscles can help prevent the onset of lymphedema, which can affect women after breast cancer treatment.

But the majority of Saturday's competitors were not breast cancer survivors; they were men and women from community organizations and companies to support the cause.

A sense of friendly competition filled the air, as four boats of 22 people battled down the race course in heats. Paddlers dug their blades into the water, keeping to the beat of a drum, hoping they would be the first to cross the finish line. Heats, semifinals and finals went on from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., with a break in the middle for remarks and the carnation ceremony. It takes two minutes on average to complete the 350-meter course.

Hope Chest, founded in 2000, has been trying to host its own dragon boat racing festival.

"This was the organization's dream, and it has come true today," Anne Kiste, Hope Chest team coach, said on hosting the festival.

The sport has become a positive part of life after cancer.

Ellen McGrath of Cheektowaga is a seven-year breast cancer survivor. The sport and the camaraderie that comes with it make her feel empowered.

"Everybody knows where you've been and what you've been through; it's emotional," she said.

The Hope Chest team practices twice a week in the spring, and travels to two or three competitions each year. The organization strives to be a positive support group for women at all stages of battling breast cancer, and offers free fitness courses.

For the Hope Chest team, just getting in the boat and rowing means success. One of the team's favorite slogans is "We're always first in our lane," said Kiste, the coach.

Before the carnation ceremony, members of Hope Chest took the stage and thanked the organization and event sponsors, including Naturally Chiropractic, RCR Marina and Beauty Pools. Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, spoke briefly about the importance of developing the waterfront. They honored Nathan Benderson, the late Buffalo real estate magnate, and declared July 16 Nathan Benderson Day.

The day's fun-filled atmosphere, with music blasting and beautiful weather, fit well with the positive outlook on recovery and life after cancer that Hope Chest is all about.

Lisa Causland, of Amherst, said it's exhilarating and hard work to compete in the dragon boats. Some of her friends cried the first time they paddled.

After fighting the cancer, she said, "they didn't believe they'd be able to do something. We're proving that you can."