Shirley H: Paddling for Life
Type of Breast Cancer / Treatment: I was diagnosed in 1999 with Triple Negative breast cancer and had a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiation. My cancer returned in 2011, and I underwent a bilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction, using tissue from my abdomen to reconstruct one breast and a silicone gel implant to reconstruct the other. As a result, I named my new breasts “Jelly” and “Belly.”
Biggest challenge in dealing with breast cancer: The hardest part for me was in 2011 when I discovered that I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation. My daughter chose to be tested and she, too, carries the mutation. At age 21, during Spring Break of her senior year at USC, she underwent a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, just three weeks after my second surgery. You can mess with me, but don’t mess with my kid!
How I overcame the challenge: Even since my first diagnosis, I was determined not to let breast cancer get the upper hand. We don’t know what causes breast cancer, but we do know that a healthy lifestyle will help prevent it. For my sake, for my daughter’s sake and for every other woman who faces this challenge, I walk, hike, exercise and paddle to prove that there’s more to life than being a cancer patient.
My greatest joy: My daughter. She is the light of my life and the reason I want to stay healthy for as long as I can. I cherish the relationship we have developed and delight in every moment I spend with her.
What dragon boat racing has brought to my life: I’ve always been fairly athletic—a gymnast and dancer in high school, and doing 10K runs in my 20’s. My grandparents were circus aerialists, so I think it’s in the genes. But life, career, and family have a way of changing priorities. After my first diagnosis, I started doing 60-mile fundraising walks for breast cancer. It was on a 2009 walk in San Diego that I saw a breast cancer survivor dragon boat team who had come out to salute the walkers. I love the water and thought, “I could do that!” But I didn’t find the LA Pink Dragons until I was diagnosed the second time. I guest-paddled with the team two months after my bilateral mastectomy and was hooked. When I finished my reconstruction surgery, I joined the team and never looked back. The physical training, the endorphin rush after a challenging practice, the exhilaration of competing, the camaraderie and support of my teammates, the shared emotion of grieving over another life lost…being a Pink Dragon has been as life-changing as being diagnosed with breast cancer in the first place.