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Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival: Roff excited to lead team in cancer survivor race

"I got chills," said Wanda Roff when she heard about the establishment of cancer survivor dragon boat teams. Roff is the captain of the Beltrami Relay for Life team, "Survive-Oars." Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Three weeks ago, Wanda Roff was asked if she wanted to be the captain of the Survive-Oars, a new dragon boat racing team that was being formed.

Although having rowed on the Jaycees' team in the Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival in previous years, Roff was nevertheless surprised.

Not only did Roff assemble 20 people in the 21-day period to join her, but her new oar mates are, like her, survivors of cancer.

"It was hectic," Roff said, "but I had a lot of people help me find fellow survivors."

Roff was diagnosed with cervical cancer 5 years ago, following the birth of her son.

"He literally saved my life," Roff said, as she would have not received medical attention quickly enough without his being born.

"It was hit after hit," Roff added, referring to her fight with cancer. Roff said the love and support of her family and friends helped her stay strong during her struggle.

"I have my son as my focus," she said.

Last year was Roff's first year being involved in Relay for Life. Gradually becoming more and more involved with the program, Roff eventually began to speak of her experience, writing in the Northwoods Woman magazine.

Roff feels excited about becoming team captain of a survivor-only dragon boat racing team. While Roff doesn't know everyone on her team very well yet, she said she feels a connection with all of them.

Being part of a team with cancer survivors provides Roff with the comfort to talk about her experience and listen to others stories. She said she is becoming fast friends with other survivors.

"They get it," said Roff of her teammates. "They ask because they understand. It's very fulfilling."

This year, the Bemidji Dragon Boat festival will be hosting a separate survivor race, where teams with those who have survived cancer will compete against one another. The race will take place at the end of the morning races. A Roses recognition ceremony, honoring those who have been lost to cancer, will follow the race.

Roff is anticipating the survivor race and recognition ceremony, unsure of what to expect. This, however, doesn't deter her enthusiasm.

"I'm excited for an established Relay for Life team," she said, "It's really cool to have four survivor teams participating."

The festivities, although meant to be fun and thrilling, will also have a serious undertone for Roff.

"The Roses ceremony will be honoring those lost to cancer," she said. "I have a feeling it's going to be an emotional experience for everyone."

The Relay for Life tent will be handing out cupcakes to survivors and selling caregiver T-shirts throughout the day. Roff said the idea of an ongoing involvement of Relay for Life in the Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival makes her happy.

"I got chills," she said. "This is awesome."