After beating cancer, Anusuya Chia, 69, grabbed life by the horns and lived it to the fullest, cancer be damned.

Anusuya, or Anu, was diagnosed with breast cancer 25 years ago when she was 44 years old. However, she chooses not to dwell on that pivotal life moment. In fact, for Anu, getting cancer was life-affirming. It redefined the things that were important to her — like her family, being of service to others and enjoying the fun side of life, including dragon boating. Not only because it was a way for her to be fit, but also because it helped forge lifelong friendships with other breast cancer survivors. “I don’t know what life would have been like [otherwise]. When you’re given a second chance, you’d want to do things differently,” she says.

“Before cancer and before I discovered dragon boating, my life was booked! I only knew the office,” says this former ad executive who now works as a freelance editor.

“Life at an ad agency is incredibly fast-paced. I’d work the whole day and until late at night, and then Friday nights, I’d go out drinking with colleagues and all that. My weekend was full — I used to drive around like crazy doing errands. It was another life.”

Cancer — and by extension, dragon boating — made her realise that there was more to life than work.

First realisation: There’s a way to balance work with other interests

I was thinking of going back to work either part-time or full-time. But it never worked out because I couldn’t really find a job. There were also a lot of things I wanted to do in my free time, so I thought, maybe I shouldn’t really go back to work full-time.

I started taking part in things that piqued my interest. When I have some time away from my freelance editing, I like to go for talks at the Breast Cancer Foundation (BCF). They usually hold talks, and I would attend the ones that interest me.

The hospital where I go for therapy also has talks once a month on different diseases and illnesses, and if I like the topic, I would go.

I also just joined Toastmaster’s Club. Here’s a funny story: During the very first meeting of the Toastmaster’s Club, I was voted the best speaker. The new members were asked to give an impromptu talk, and so I did. We were supposed to continue from the speaker before us, and the speaker before me talked about his vacation in New Zealand. It just so happened that we just had a dragon boating event there, so I talked about that. It wasn’t a problem for me to talk, as you can tell. And it was a unanimous vote that I was the best speaker.

I keep myself busy with things I enjoy doing.

Second realisation: You need people who understand what you’ve been through to share your life with

This was how I became involved with dragon boating. I had been a breast cancer survivor for five years before I heard that BCF had a dragon boat team (called The Pink Paddlers). I really shouted for joy. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, there must be other breast cancer survivors there.” I was really so keen to meet them.

The only other breast cancer survivor I knew then was an aunt, and I wanted to get to know other people who had been in the same journey as I was. I was also intrigued by the fact that I could pick up a sport like dragon boating at 49 years old. I thought, what is there for me to be scared of? Everybody’s starting from scratch. Everyone would be in the same situation.

Third realisation: Just because you had cancer doesn’t mean you can’t be strong and competitive

We went to our first competition in Shanghai in 2005. That was an eye-opener because all the other teams were breast cancer survivors from all over the world. Everyone was competing to win. Everyone wanted to win for their country.

I remember watching the other teams, especially the Chinese team. They were so strong, like soldiers. Perfectly in harmony. We couldn’t believe they were all survivors. They were all so strong.

Fourth realisation: If you want to be healthy, you need to be disciplined

Dragon boating is a very structured programme, you have to go every week in order to be consistent in your strokes. It taught me discipline because you had to get up early, you had to make sure your gear is in order. You have to make sure you practice, and if you want to race, then you must commit to training week after week.

It also trains you to be mindful because you’re part of a team, you’re not alone. It’s a team sport, so everyone contributes, in victory or loss. But what is important is that you train hard and that you do what is expected of you.

We have a 30-minute exercise before we paddle, which is not a simple thing. It’s constant running up and down, which keeps your cardio going. There are also different exercises for strength training, which keeps your muscles strong and builds up your core strength.

If I’m not training, I need to do these exercises on my own to maintain my stamina. At the very least I’d do a bit of brisk-walking as well. It keeps me fit.

Fifth realisation: Age is not a hindrance to trying new things and opening up a world of possibilities

Dragon boating gave me cherished friendships, which I wouldn’t have if I didn’t take that step to try it out. The friendships I made there extend beyond the sport. We’d go out for movies or to watch plays. Or we could just be eating at a nice place someone discovered. We’re inclusive. We’re all in this together so we will just mix with whoever is around. It’s a great friendship. It means that I am no longer alone.

I think people, seniors especially, need to be open about trying something new. For example, right now, I want to pick up hula hooping again. I used to be good at it as a kid. Don’t let age determine who you are. Everyone has failed before, we all have fears, but we need to overcome these fears. Age is just a number. Don’t limit yourself. Put your mind to work. Tell yourself you can. Because you can.

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