A group of Toronto women, all of whom have dealt with breast cancer, are building up their strength and their friendships by teaming up for dragon boat race.

Catherine Barker has been with Dragons Abreast for five years, ever since she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy.

“As someone who loves the water, being in the water, on the water, near the water, it just seemed like a perfect thing for me and it’s just really become a silver lining in all this journey,” she said.

The use of dragon boat training for breast cancer survivors goes back to 1996, when a doctor in British Columbia challenged the medical advice of the time, which was for patients to avoid upper body exertion after breast cancer treatment.

Dr. Don McKenzie put together a study with 22 breast cancer survivors to see their response to the physically-intense training involved in dragon boat racing.

Not only did the participants flourish, they were so enthusiastic about the physical and emotional benefits of the sport, they continued after his study was completed.

“It really is a total body workout. And it does take time to get used to it,” said Barker. “But it’s fantastic!”

The world’s first breast cancer survivor’s team, called Abreast In a Boat, was started in Vancouver.

Eleanor Nielsen, who went through breast cancer treatment in 1996, started the second group in Toronto the following year.

There are now 226 teams around the world.

Nielsen said members range in age from their 20’s all the way up to their 80’s. And while they lost some members in the early years of Dragons Abreast, treatments have greatly improved the quality of life for patients.

“Nowadays, with the types of surgery and the less invasive treatment options, people will start within a couple of months following (cancer treatment),” she said.

For Nielson, the appeal of dragon boat racing is the breath-taking view of Toronto.

“I love seeing the city from the perspective of the water. It’s just like a whole new world from there.”

And the group’s success has drawn support from lingerie maker Anita Canada, which makes products such as prostheses and post-mastectomy swimsuits.

Managing Director Mark Caskenette says the company provides financial support for Dragons Abreast and even provides specialized clothing for the team members.

Caskenette says Anita provides He joined the team for some training and paddling on Lake Ontario on Wednesday.

Caskenette says Anita shares common goals with Dragons Abreast, “helping women reacquire their lives from cancer.”