Cancer survivors from Tampa hit the water at Dragon Boat Festival

The Tampa-based Pink Dragon Ladies will be among the 3,000 people competing in the International Dragon Boat Festival in Sarasota this weekend.

In 2012, Steffanie Harris of Tampa became one of the more than 230,000 American women diagnosed with breast cancer. Harris, a commercial property manager, was shocked when she got the news one Sunday after her gynecologist asked to meet with her at the office.

"I knew it couldn't be good news," Harris, now 39, remembers.

The experience eventually brought her to a cancer survivors celebration last spring at St. Joseph's Hospital, where she met a group of women called the Pink Dragon Ladies, who would put a cap on her recovery and become a support network for the future.

Dragon boats are named for the colorful painting and dragon heads and tails that adorn each boat. The Tampa-based Pink Dragon Ladies are all cancer survivors who train together year-round to compete in races in Florida and elsewhere in the United States. This year, an International Dragon Boat Festival — the Olympics of dragon boat racing — is being held in Sarasota. The event, which begins Friday and continues through Sunday, is expected to draw more than 3,000 participants from around the world. It's sponsored by the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission.

Harris will be among the paddlers in pink, competing in her first dragon boat race. She won't be on the Tampa team's boat — it's a long story about how you qualify to participate — but Harris and a few other team members are being placed with teams from England, Italy and Australia who don't have enough paddlers.

Harris spoke about her life-changing diagnosis and what it has meant to join the ranks of survivors who, as paddlers like to say, have been "bitten by the dragon."

How did you find your cancer? You're much too young to be having annual mammograms.

I found it myself, a small, strange lump. Fortunately, I had my annual well-woman checkup coming up in two weeks and I told them about it. My doctor sent me for a mammogram, which led to a biopsy and a Sunday morning phone call from my doctor to meet at her office. I headed to Sarasota for a work-related emergency and had to turn around and head back to Tampa.

What was your reaction when she gave you the news?

I was shocked. We don't have a family history of breast cancer and I had been telling myself it was nothing. So, I went into emergency mode and said, "Okay, I have a problem. I have to deal with it."

You decided not to have a lumpectomy, surgery to remove just the 1 ½-inch mass and some surrounding tissue. Why?

I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy, both breasts removed. Although small, it was an aggressive cancer. I didn't want the stress of always wondering whether they got it all. I figured my chances were better for the long term with bilateral mastectomy. Plus, I wouldn't need chemotherapy and radiation. I had the surgery and started reconstruction right away. It took six months to complete the process.

How did you get involved with the Pink Dragon Ladies?

I went to a cancer survivors event last April at St. Joseph's to, I think, further my personal healing process. I don't usually do group things. But I went and (the Dragon Ladies) had a table there. I talked to them — I love anything water-related — and joined them for a practice in May. I was hooked the first day. They are wonderful women who have all been through cancer and survived. Some are in their 70s. In fact, I was the youngest one there, and I couldn't keep up with them. It was so inspiring. They taught me everything I needed to know.

Were you ready physically for such a demanding sport?

After the diagnosis, I went through a period of thinking maybe the cancer was my fault, something I did or didn't do. I haven't had kids. I like to drink wine. I was overweight. Some of the literature I read mentioned those things as risk factors for breast cancer. So, I made some changes. I started working out with a trainer, lost about 20 pounds, changed the way I eat, cut back on meat, junk food and just tried to live a more healthy lifestyle. I also went through survivor's guilt.

What's that?

I didn't have radiation. I didn't have chemotherapy. I never lost my hair or got the nausea and fatigue that usually comes with treatment. At times, I felt guilty for having surgery and taking the easy way out compared to what so many other women have been through with treatment. It was a very tough time and I wondered, "Why me?" I really couldn't make any sense out of it. But it made me really re-evaluate my life.

That led to a lot of changes. Do you think that helped with your recovery?

I do. I changed my whole outlook, including the stress level in my life. I didn't want to feel like I was wasting any time. I changed jobs, broke up with my boyfriend and started appreciating all that I do have, instead of focusing on the cancer and what I had lost.

Contact Irene Maher at [email protected]