Esther Huang-da Silva was a member of the Paddlers in the Pink for nine years.

PHOTOGRAPH: Dorothy da Silva

Dorothy da Silva still vividly remembers the moment when her mother, Esther, told her daughter she had breast cancer back in 2002.

“It was outside Mum’s bedroom. When she broke the news to me, I remember thinking, ‘How long does she have to live? Why her? Do I have enough time with her?’ There was a lot of fear and guilt.”

Dorothy was still in her 20s then, and Esther, then 60. Initially, she says, all she could think about was what her mother’s diagnosis would mean for her. Finding out about the breast cancer completely shook up Dorothy’s life, which at the time revolved around friends and work, and, in her own words, “parties and cute boys”.

“At first, it was all about me,” Dorothy admits. “What would happen to me if I lost my mother? How would I feel? Then, I realised it wasn’t Planet Dorothy. I put myself in Mum’s shoes. How does she feel? What does she need? And the most important thing was to listen to her.”

It was painful to see the usually bubbly and chatty Esther brought low by illness, silent and sullen. Further medical tests revealed that she had pre-existing liver cirrhosis, so chemotherapy was out of the question. Chemotherapy is not recommended for those with pre-existing medical conditions because the body is already weak.

She would undergo a lumpectomy, also called breast conservation surgery, where only the diseased part of the breast is removed. Esther also underwent radiotherapy, a treatment involving the use of high-energy radiation to target and kill cancer cells. Additionally, she had eight lymph nodes removed.  

“My body was wrecked,” Esther says.


Paddling to recovery

During one of her radiotherapy sessions at the National Cancer Centre Singapore, Esther came to know about the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF).

Hoping to learn how to better cope with her disease, she attended a BCF symposium. She was just six weeks into her diagnosis then. There, she met Dr Donald McKenzie, a medical researcher from Canada who proposed dragon boat training for breast cancer survivors. He believed that this intensive form of exercise could reduce lymphedema, or swelling in the arms caused by the removal of lymph nodes.  

“I was a little apprehensive,” admits Esther. “I used to be very active in sports but I’d never tried dragon boating. And at 60 years old, I wasn’t sure if I should. I was still undergoing radiotherapy at that time.”

Esther and a few other women decided to give it a shot. The women who’d signed up then roped in their husbands, siblings, children and friends to join them for weekly training sessions. Esther invited Dorothy.


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Together, mother and daughter began physical training with the help and supervision of a group of breast cancer survivors-cum-dragon boat enthusiasts from Canada. Doctors also tracked the swelling in the women’s arms and legs to determine if the dragon boat training was helping in their recovery. Within weeks, all the women were seeing improvement in their lymphedema.

In less than six months, the group of about 20 women (and a few men) were out on the water, paddling like a professional team. They called themselves the Paddlers in the Pink.


Survivor bonding

Dragonboating was more than just a sport or a hobby to the survivors. The mum-and-daughter pair trained regularly with the team on Saturdays at 7.30am. After training, the team would head to Esther’s house where the home cook would whip up a sumptuous meal for everyone. It was a time of bonding through which the survivors got a chance to share their struggles and Dorothy got to know her mother better.

Aside from building their physical strength, the women also drew emotional strength from one another. But on top of that, they also were given an end goal to work towards: to win races.

That’s right – the Paddlers in the Pink are a competition team. They have since participated in races in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Germany and Australia, to name a few. Racing gave the women a common objective, and a target that they could collectively strive towards. “BCF gave me hope,” Esther says. “I felt that I was not alone.”

Dorothy and Esther stayed with the team for nine years before Esther bowed out when she was 69, due to complications with her knees.


A daughter’s goal

Recently however, Dorothy, now 38, re-joined the Paddlers to raise awareness for BCF, as well as registered for training to counsel the families of women diagnosed with breast cancer at BCF’s Caregivers’ Support Group meetings.

“Breast cancer survivors need an ecosystem of support. In these groups, you get advice and encouragement. You get to share your experiences with people who understand you and are going through it too,” she says.

You don’t have to be sporty to join a support group, says Dorothy. The Paddlers in the Pink are but one of BCF’s many Healing through the Arts programmes – other interest groups include Zumba, yoga, art, ukulele and crochet.

Because of her mother, now 73 and given the all-clear from breast cancer, the disease is constantly on Dorothy’s mind. But she says that even if she were to develop it too, she is fortunate because there are now a lot of resources for patients.

“Many years ago, I had a colleague whose mother had breast cancer. And BCF hadn’t existed yet, so he didn’t know what to do and how to cope. Nowadays, there’s a much better support system available for breast cancer patients and their families. There are organisations here to help you. Every October, there are campaigns to generate awareness. And through Mum’s experience, I’m better prepared for what is to come if it does happen to me,” says Dorothy.