Photo by Shane Wynn
This summer, Portage Lakes will be awash with pink, thanks to this breast cancer survivor.
Eight years ago, Jessica Mader was recovering in Nova Scotia, following her chemo and breast cancer surgery.
One morning, on her front porch, she found a life vest, a paddle, a membership card and a note that said, ‘Be on the dock at 6:00 Wednesday night.’ The mysterious gift intrigued Mader, so that evening she followed the instructions and found women on the dock, hugging each other and bringing in a long, swift, Hong Kong-style dragon boat, “so I joined them,” she says.
“The minute I picked up a paddle and put it in the water, I felt such a relief. I was home,” she says. “And all I could think was, ‘I have to have this in Ohio.’”
Mader recently talked with akronlife about bringing strength and joy to area breast cancer survivors through positive energy — and paddling.
How did you get the team started locally?
JM: [My doctor’s office staff] and I got invitations out to everyone he’d seen with breast cancer in the Greater Akron area, and I booked two nights [for registration] because it takes 22 people to paddle a dragon boat.
The first night I had 35 people come, and they all signed up, and then I got 37 more. So right away, I had 72 people. And [my doctor] said, ‘When you’re ready for your boat, I want to buy it for you.’ I’m such a lucky person. We now have a beautiful naval dock and a boathouse, and we paddle out on Portage Lakes.
Where did the name for the team originate?
JM: I decided it should be Chemotion of Ohio from the chemo that saved our lives, the motion of the dragon boat going through the water and the emotion we all share. And I went running in and told my doctor, and he didn’t smile. He said, ‘Look Jessica, not everyone enjoyed their chemotherapy as much as you did.’ And it was true; I just loved it.
So I called my son, and he says, ‘Mother, did you ever think about what the anagram for is for Mader? It’s dream.’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, The Dragon Dream Team — perfect.’
How does the team help you and the paddlers through such a difficult time?
JM: We go from ages 26 to 82, and everything in-between. It makes you realize there is a quality of life after breast cancer that you never anticipated. And it is so joyful. You contribute, and yet you receive so much; it’s just a win-win situation.
What this team has done is make you count your blessings, and there’s something really comfortable that you don’t even have to talk about. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t been touched by someone in some way who has breast cancer, so the support is wonderful. And we’re open all the time to new members.
We have done a wonderful thing for hundreds of women around here. It’s not a tear jerker, it’s a joy. They come kind of scared and not knowing, and I say to them, ‘I’m going to pretend you’re Cleopatra, and we’re just going to paddle you around, and you can be a queen.’ But they all want to pick up a paddle. They can’t help themselves.
Why bring the dragon boats to Ohio?
JM: I knew about the dragon boats [in Nova Scotia], but not being involved with breast cancer in any way, I saw them go paddling out, and for a moment, it made me a little sad, and then I moved on.
Now when I go there, I know the joy that’s in everybody’s hearts for having found each other and having this. It’s something about the depth of understanding for others that’s so rewarding. It’s just the best.
How can local people see what the Dragon Boat Dream Team does?
JM: We have our gala fundraiser on April 12 where people join us and celebrate. July 12 is our second annual Portage Lakes Dragon Boat Festival, where we have boats racing, tents and displays, and food. It’s a wonderful thing.
Do you and your team members participate in any type of ritual before you paddle?
JM: Before we get in the boat, we have a circle of strength on the beach, and we all hold hands. It’s not taken for granted. We give thanks and count our blessings, and that’s the important thing we do.
You never hear anybody going, ‘Oh, poor me.’ There’s no one sadder than the whole bunch of us, and we’re celebrating. It’s a joyful recuperation, and it goes on. Nobody ever wants to give it up. No one will stay home. They stay forever.
/ Writer Caitlyn Callahan is a senior at KSU working on her bachelor’s in magazine journalism.
Comments? Email them to managing editor Abby Cymerman at firstname.lastname@example.org.