The cure for anything is salt water.
That's according Takako Kimura, known as "T.K." among her peers. At 72 years old, she's the oldest member of the Los Angeles Pink Dragons, a dragon boat racing team piloted by breast cancer survivors from the greater Los Angeles area.
"I'm the only surviving member of our founding group," Kimura said. "When I started, I was still doing chemo, already had surgeries and radiation, but I still went outside every practice for my vitamin D."
The group started recruiting members in 2003 when Kimura was 56. She was receiving treatment at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, and at the time, she didn't know how many members would be recruited onto the dragon boat team.
"I was at the Memorial Hospital annual survivor celebration and the Pink Dragons had a booth there," teammate Debra Blumberg said. "It took me two years to actually join because of complications from surgery, but once I was ready, I jumped right in."
Blumberg grew up in Belmont Shore, but said that she had never seen or heard of the Dragon Boat Festival before being introduced to the Pink Ladies. The 67-year-old member was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014.
"This team was such a wonderful surprise to me," she said. "The friends I've made, everything, I can't express how happy it makes me."
For the members of the Pink Ladies, the feeling of camaraderie is the most important part of the sport, Blumberg said. Many of the survivors have never been very athletic or played any water sports, but that doesn't stop the team from inviting them to join.
"I was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2011. I haven't been paddling in a while because of my illness, but you better believe that when I'm feeling better, I'm running out to get my 'vitamin sea,'" 42-year-old Jenelle Linares said. "I've never been a sun person or a beach or a sand or athletic person, but now I can't get enough of this sport."
Linares was first diagnosed in 2008. She said that being around a group of survivors who encouraged her to keep showing up to practice and keep living life made all the difference as she dealt with surgeries, chemo and everything else her disease threw at her.
“We all know what initiation we have to go through to get on this team," Valerie Hamm, member since 2014, said. "It's such a beautiful camaraderie of women who have gone through treatment and we're all here to get our energy levels back up and cheer each other on and be badass."
Hamm said that she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 at 53 years old, but she was determined to set a healing example for herself and others.
Kimura, in addition to her continued battle with cancer, was diagnosed with ALS, a degenerative muscle disease that has left her with difficulty moving and speaking.
"At that time back in 2003, in my culture, you didn't talk about things like that (having breast cancer) out loud," she said. "But I saw these women and they encouraged me to talk about it, they encouraged me to find my power.
"This is my life now... Even with my medical situation as it is, I’m still able to go out in the water, and I'm able to encourage others like I was encouraged in 2003."
The Los Angeles Pink Ladies will be competing this weekend at the Dragon Boat Festival in Marine Stadium. Each member is a breast cancer survivor hailing from the greater Los Angeles area. The women in this story are currently being treated at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center.
Around 11:50 a.m. on Saturday, right before the dragon boat teams break for lunch, the Pink Ladies will host a flower ceremony recognizing their teammates, friends and family who have passed away due to breast cancer.
Additionally, the Los Angeles Pink Dragons are always recruiting new members. All levels of physical fitness are welcome. For more information, go to lapinkdragons.org.
Long Beach's 23rd annual Dragon Boat Festival is happening from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 27, through Sunday, July 28, at Marine Stadium, 5255 E. Paoli Way. The event is free to attend. For more information about the event, go to lbdragonboat.com.
Stephanie Stutzman can be reached at email@example.com.