Breast cancer survivors win before crossing the finish line

April 5, 2012

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The benefits of breast cancer survivors walking hand-in-hand or running in pink during the many weekend road races this spring may go beyond raising money, says a Purdue University expert.

"I have seen how breast cancer survivors who train regularly for dragon boat racing not only live but thrive after cancer because they are benefiting from social and physical health benefits of exercising with other survivors," says Meghan McDonough, an assistant professor of health and kinesiology who studies exercise and social relationships among breast cancer survivors. "What I've seen from these women is that it's not just about getting back to where they were, but helping them grow. While my work has focused on women who spend this time together over weeks and months, meeting other survivors through these races may be a starting point for fostering social connections and exercise partnerships with others who have also been through breast cancer."

McDonough's research, which focuses on breast cancer survivors who participate on dragon boat racing teams, has found that participating with other survivors in a regular fitness activity helps meet survivors' emotional, informational and social needs. Her interviews and observations with survivors who teamed up to row these 43-foot vessels paddled by 20 people in local dragon boat races show that the camaraderie helps improve the confidence and self-esteem about being a cancer survivor. For example, these women have fewer negative images of themselves as a cancer survivor.

"There is something empowering and emotional when women are dressed in pink while rowing a boat together. It's more than just a photo opportunity; it's an image of cancer that many people may not be familiar with," McDonough says. "These women become their own support group that helps them with their individual process of posttraumatic growth as they rebuild their view of who they are and what their life is like."

The experience is different for each survivor, but many women fall into profiles of either developing a feisty spirit of survivorship, wanting to help others, or focusing on the fitness and competition, McDonough says.

"We know that physical activity improves health, but there also are tremendous benefits when these survivors learn about their inner strength, and that they are not just alive but strong and capable," McDonough says. "It shows what a cancer survivor can do and it is very empowering."

McDonough also is an affiliate member of the Oncological Sciences Center in Purdue's Discovery Park and the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition Project at Purdue.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Meghan McDonough, 765-496-9483, mcdonough@purdue.edu

Note to Journalists: Journalists interested in a copy of Meghan McDonough's related journal article "The Development of Social Relationships, Social Support and Posttraumatic Growth in a Dragon Boat Team for Breast Cancer Survivors" can contact Amy Patterson Neubert, Purdue News Service, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu. The article was published in October 2011 in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology.