South China Morning Post   SATURDAY MAY 17, 2003


Margaret Wong 74, cancer survivor  dragon-boat racer

In November, 1999, when she was 70 years old, Margaret Wong had a malignant tumour removed from her breast. Today, she is determined to paddle a dragon boat in the Fifth World Dragon Boat Championships in Shanghai, in August.

This is no idle dream for Mrs Wong, who was born in Canada of Chinese parents. She has raced nine times in the past two years. Last year her team took second place by four-tenths of a second at the Liberty International Dragon Boat Festival in New York City. It was competing in the Breast Cancer Challenge Cup.
   That achievement was only one of many personal victories that probably would not have happened if she had not had one of the most frightening of illnesses. 
   “After surviving cancer,” she said, “I no longer think about being afraid.” She now grabs, compulsively, opportunities to do things she never had the nerve to do before.
   “I don’t know when my body will stop functioning. I want to do it all now.”
    The worst experience in Mrs. Wong’s life was when her doctor informed her about the cancer. She was devastated and at first did not believe him, since she ate only what was good for her and did not drink or smoke. 
    At first, she was afraid to tell anyone – even her husband, Richard. “Chinese people are like
that,” she explains. “They don’t want anyone else to know about a dreadful disease in a private part of the body.”
    It was only when she needed help getting treatment that she had to tell Richard. He reacted calmly and was extremely supportive throughout her ordeal. She later admitted she had
been wrong not to let him know, from the outset, about all the anxieties she was going through alone. 
    Canadian medical authorities assigned her to a clinic in nearby New York state for post-operative treatment since Toronto, where she lives, has a shortage of such facilities. Several other cancer patients were
also receiving treatment in the US.
“We stayed in the same hotel and dined together,” she said. “We women talked easily about
our medical problems. 
   At first the men said nothing, but after a while they, too, talked about their prostates.”
Richard was with her part of the time and asked, “How can you put up with their talk about such private matters?” But she did not mind. Somehow, her attitude had changed by then. “It was so liberating,” she insists. Talking about it was therapeutic.
    Once a shy, quiet, self-effacing woman who frequently apologized for bothering people, Mrs. Wong does not seem to realize what an inspiration she has become for other seniors.
     Today, she laughs in delight as she speaks of finally passing her driver’s test, her first challenge after the cancer. She had an understanding driving teacher who gave her lessons before Richard woke up in the morning. She was afraid he would try to discourage her.
     When she was able to drive 100km/h without fear among Ontario’s demon drivers, her feeling was, “Wow! Wonderful,” she recalled. She told Richard afterwards, and today he seems
pleased to have a personal chauffeur.

Margaret Wong

    Mrs. Wong also started taking piano lessons, took two skiing lessons and is aching for more. She went out on snowshoes for a whole day this year, a winter sport that few urban Canadians ever try. 
   She used a walker when she started ice skating, but can zip across the ice now on her own. She had done none of these things before she was 70. “I used to be fussy about a clean house,” she said. “Now I don’t do the dishes or make the beds as often as before. I don’t see Richard as much, though sometimes I feel guilty about neglecting him when I’m paddling.”     
     Mrs. Wong has become more aware of her world. “I notice things I never did before, like birds chirping and the beauty of a sunset. People tell me I look wonderful. Other
dragon boaters ask how old I am. They never did that before.
     Life has continued in fuller force than before cancer.”
    She heard about Dragons Abreast from Wellspring, a centre that provides emotional and psychological support for people
living with cancer. Staff there told her about the teams and, impulsively, she said she wanted to paddle too because she is Chinese and dragon boating is Chinese. 
    She did not want to tell her family about paddling because she knew they would not support her. 
    When her husband saw photos of her new friends, he exclaimed, “But they are all younger than you!” Sometimes he admonishes her to “Act your age!”
    Mrs Wong said, “It is absolutely great. I’m so happy and so free and I feel like a kid. I now have a lot of energy. And where can you find 20 women doing something together so happily?”
    “But you’re afraid of water,” her family said when they eventually found out. “What if the boat capsized?” 
    Mrs Wong decided then that she would learn to swim, too. She joined a group of seniors and took lessons. More than half of them were also breast cancer survivors.
    It took her nine weeks to get comfortable in the water. During the lessons, she used to think, “What am I doing here?” and then she says with a laugh, about finally learning, “It’s so sensational, that feeling of floating.”
    The exercising has made her feel so healthy and energetic that she never thinks about medical problems, except for SARS in Shanghai. Toronto also has been a hot spot for that disease.
     Dragon boat racing for breast cancer survivors was started in 1996 as an experiment by Don MacKenzie, a Vancouver doctor who wanted to see if such repetitive upper body exercise would help avoid lymphoedema, a swelling of the arm which is common after surgery. His first group liked the sport so much that they wanted to continue even after the experiment was  finished and proved successful.

The movement expanded to other Canadian cities and to New Zealand, Australia and the US.
     The International Dragon Boat Federation, which is organizing the Shanghai races, has established different rules and set aside a separate division for them. 
   They do not compete against other teams, but race instead for fun, companionship and a desire to spread their message of hope and courage. At the end of their races, they throw pink carnations into the water in memory of those who have died or are unable to paddle.
     Mrs Wong was born in Northern Ontario and brought up in a small Quebec community where her family operated a restaurant and raised a family of nine boys and two girls. 
   Her father was from Jiangmen and her mother from Zhongshan, both in Guangdong province. Theirs was usually the only Chinese family in town.
    Her parents and brothers treated her like a fragile doll though she was healthy and able to take care of herself. Her mother put ribbons in her hair and curled it, and never allowed
her to wear trousers. 
    While her brothers played ice hockey, they never asked her to play, and accompanied her everywhere.
The family went to China for three years when she was five years old. Her parents wanted the children to absorb their Chinese culture, and she learned the local Sai Yip dialect – for a time. 
   They moved to Toronto because of its Chinese community, and she went to secretarial school and worked as a
legal secretary, and later as a fashion designer.
   In the 1960s, she bought an around-the-world plane ticket,
stopping off in Hong Kong for what she thought would be a two-week visit with relatives in the city. 
    Then her father told her
not to come back until she had learned Cantonese. She worked for the Canadian immigration service, the Hong Kong government protocol office, and then its Special Branch.
She wanted to learn about Hong Kong as well, and friends
introduced her to Richard Wong, a tour guide, who became her
language teacher, personal tour guide and later her husband.
    Homesickness at Christmas finally forced her back to Canada after four years abroad.
    As for the future, Richard is thinking about going to Shanghai with her. He is now resigned to her dragon boating as part of her new found world of adventures. 
   In Shanghai, she will probably be one of the few Canadian competitors who looks Chinese. 
    Breast cancer teams have different names: the Toronto group is Dragon Abreast. There are also names like Hope Afloat and Chestmates. 
    The women are different sizes and ages, andnot necessarily muscular and young like other teams. Mrs Wong
usually sits at the back of the boat because she is slim and can fit the smaller seat there.
  The festival is scheduled to take place at the National Water Sports Park on Shanghai’s Dianshan Lake, August 27-31.

Margaret Wong: 74, cancer survivor, dragon-boat racer

Ruth Lor Malloy is the author of China Guide, now in its 14th edition

Ms. Malloy is author of "China Guide" a regularly updated travel guidebook on China.


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