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Austin group connects breast cancer survivors through dragon boating

Starting in 2019, Paddles with a Purpose started up in Austin to connect breast cancer survivors with each other.

AUSTIN, Texas — There are times in our lives when connection is exactly what we need – connecting to people to get things done. There's no exception for this group. 

"It's a thing, people don't know about dragon boating. It's become an international sport," said Laura Szalay, who started her own dragon boating group in Austin. "They have international races all over the world." 

It's a group of women who have one common goal, a goal that isn't just paddling the boat.

"It's an incredible group of strong women that have been through a lot physically, they're all breast cancer survivors," said Szalay. "They come from all walks of life and they come to support each other on and off the water."

On the water, they call themselves Paddles with a Purpose. Off the water, they call each other friends.

"Yeah, you can call anyone of these women and in the drop of a hat they would be there for you," Szalay said. 

Szalay, who fills in as the coach from time to time, is also the woman who brought Austin a breast cancer dragon boat.

"In 2019, I joined the co-ed team. I was surprised that Austin didn't have a breast cancer survivor team. Houston had one, Dallas had one, and the Coolers were awesome, and I started talking to the coach saying it would be cool to have a breast cancer team and it started from there."

All in an effort to connect women from all walks of life to share their stories – stories such as those from people like Debbie Haynes.

"So I had breast cancer in 2018. I had chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy, followed by radiation, and then a year later, I had reconstruction," Haynes said. "I always say, 'These are the sisters you never really wanted to have, but you have.'"

Annie Muir has her own story, too.

"I was diagnosed in 2017. I had surgery and mastectomy and reconstructive surgery in June of that year. The camaraderie is what it's all about," Muir said.

Also, Kathy Espinosa has been on her journey longer.

"I was diagnosed in 2002. It was a big surprise to me, I was Stage 3. You can go to groups and be part of an exercise group, but being part of a a survivor group is a whole 'nother world," Espinosa said. 

Every woman on this boat is brought together by their stories.

"So they all understand where we've been, but there are no words, honestly," said Szalay.

Because there are times in our lives when connection is exactly what we need.

If you would like to know more about Paddles with a Purpose, you can click here.

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