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Breast cancer survivor Vickie Dunnum honored
At Sole Burner Chaseburg event
1_Popping Pink Balloons
TO ILLUSTRATE their hope and determination that a cure will be found for breast cancer, and that those diagnosed with the disease will win their battle, the Mississippi Sisters popped pink balloons. Their dream is the pink will become “just another color.”

CHASEBURG - At the annual cancer fundraising event, Sole Burner Chaseburg, breast cancer survivors are honored for their battle and for having survived. Each year, a breast cancer survivor is appointed the honorary chairperson of the event, and this year that honor went to Vickie Dunnum of rural Westby.

“I am humbled and honored to be here today,” Dunnum said. “Dealing with cancer is a marathon, not a race – it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an army of people like Linda DeGarmo to defeat breast cancer.”

2_DeGarmo and O'Brien
LINDA DEGARMO in yellow is seen with Phillip O’Brien of the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, after accepting the St. George award. The award is the highest award given to community volunteers, and was one of only 12 awarded in the nation in 2021.

At the 16th annual event held in the charming Village of Chaseburg, where the mighty Coon Creek periodically kicks up its heels and rampages, DeGarmo received multiple recognitions for her tireless work in raising funds and consciousness about breast cancer and the importance of early detection. In the last 16 years, DeGarmo has led the effort in raising $1,459,000 for the cause.

Philip O’Brien of the American Cancer Society (ACS) Cancer Action Network (CAN) Board of Directors, that his organization had awarded DeGarmo the St. George Award. The award, he explained, is given to outstanding community volunteers in recognition of their distinguished service to the ACS. Recipients are chosen based on their continuous leadership, commitment, and dedication to impact the ACS mission.

O’Brien explained that the St. George award is the highest award the ACS has for volunteers. DeGarmo’s was one of only 12 awarded nationally in 2021. He explained that DeGarmo has earned the award with her “near continuous leadership and high impact.”

3_Dunnum speaks
VICKIE DUNNUM addresses the crowd gathered to honor breast cancer survivors, and to remember those who have lost their battle, at the Sole Burner Chaseburg event.

Early detection key

Dunnum explained that breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosis for women in the U.S. In her address, she emphasized that “early detection is key,” and encouraged women to “never miss a mammogram.” Dunnum paused her talk to have participants watch a video that inspired her in her battle – ‘Pink is Another Color,’ by Dolly Parton.

“You’ve got to believe without seeing, keep going and keep breathing,” were some of the lyrics of the song Parton sang in the video.

4_Mississippi Sisters in LaCrosse
MISSISSIPPI SISTERS Dragonboat Team is shown after the ‘Big Blue Dragonboat’ event, put on by Mayo Clinic Health System, in 2019.

Mississippi Sisters

As Dunnum pursued recovery, one of her counselors suggested she attend the Big Blue Dragonboat Festival in LaCrosse. This is a program, launched by Mayo Clinic. Proceeds from the event supports free mammograms for women in financial need, as well as comprehensive care and support for patients diagnosed with breast cancer at Mayo Clinic Health System Franciscan Healthcare in Southwest Wisconsin.

 “This tradition for breast cancer recovery actually started in China,” Dunnum explained. “Paddling a dragon boat, as a recovery method, was also researched in Canada, because it encourages physical activity and upper body strength.”

Dunnum remembered that when she attended the festival, she was nauseous from chemotherapy. Her breast cancer surgeon had been a speaker at the program, and Dunnum told her later, “next year, I’ll be in one of those boats.”

Dunnum said that after she completed her treatment and was released from care, she began to participate in the Lift Strong program, in order to prepare to get herself in that dragon boat. She joined the Mississippi Sisters dragonboat team in 2019.

“Mississippi Sisters dragonboat team is all about celebrating love of our new bodies and our cancer treatments,” Dunnum explained. “It means that we are all in the same boat, and together we channel grit in our training and races.”

5_Mississippi Sisters paddling
THE TEAM is shown on a Madison-area lake pad-dling their dragonboat. The team plans to travel to New Zealand to participate in the Dragon Boat Festival in 2023.

Dunnum said that Mississippi Sisters had chosen the dragonfly as their emblem. She said the dragonfly represents the Mississippi River, and change and self-transformation, hope, resilience and harmony.

“We are training to compete in New Zealand in April of 2023,” Dunnum said. “Mississippi Sisters had joined with another dragonboat team from Madison, Team Survivor, to prepare for the race.”

6_Mississippi Sisters in Chaseburg
TEAM MEMBERS present at the Sole Burner Chase-burg event included Cathy Klug, Michele Thormen, Vickie Dunnum, Teresa Sprecher, Lisa Mellen and Mary Lou Carberry.

Team members present at the Sole Burner Chaseburg event included Cathy Klug, Michele Thormen, Vickie Dunnum, Teresa Sprecher, Lisa Mellen and Mary Lou Carberry.

Dunnum explained that the race, planned for Lake Karapiro, in New Zealand, is expected to draw between four and five thousand women from 30 counties. The event, held in 2018 in Italy is believed to have been the largest breast cancer survivor event ever.

“Dragonboat racing is the only sport that has survivorship as a category of entry,” Mississippi Sisters team member Teresa Sprecher explained. “Each team will race in a 20-person boat, with a steerer and a drummer.”

On the New Zeland event’s website, the event is described as follows:

The International Breast Cancer Paddling Commission (IBCPC) Dragon Boat Festival is held every three-to-four years. The festival is an international non-competitive participatory event for breast cancer paddler teams, who engage in dragonboat activities as post breast cancer diagnosis rehabilitation. 

“Dragonboat paddling has become a rehabilitation therapy for tens of thousands of women, and men worldwide, who have been diagnosed with breast cancer. 

“The New Zealand Festival will be a sporting event, but above all a social occasion. The participants are mainly women, between the ages of 20 and 80, who will meet to take part in the exciting dragonboat races, paddling together on the beautiful world-class facility at Lake Karapiro, in Cambridge, New Zealand. They will also be accompanied by their friends and families, and their faithful and enthusiastic supporters.”

7_Mississippi Sisters read a poem
MISSISSIPPI SISTERS Michele Thormen, Vickie Dunnum, and Lisa Mellen read a poem at the ceremony at the Sole Burner Chaseburg event.

Just another color

At the ceremony on September 25 at the Sole Burner Chaseburg event, Dunnum, or ‘Victorious Vickie’ as she is known, introduced two other members of the Mississippi Sisters – Lucky Lisa and Mighty Michelle. The two joined her in reading the poem, ‘On the Water,’ written by Kathrine Pecka Maulden. It reads as follows:

“On the dock, there are no sick people – only paddlers

There are no weak sisters – only athletes

On the dock, disease is left behind

Waving goodbye, the boat pulls away

Loosing its hold meter by meter

In the boat, there is no pain – only determination

Bald heads covered with kerchiefs, and caps

Scars covered with spandex and courage

Fear vanished by strength

In our hearts, there is no question – only commitment

There is no looking back – only forward

Eyes ahead, one boat, one body

Gaining strength with each paddle

In together, out together

We leave it all on the water.”

After the women read the poem, which left many in the audience in tears, they joined together to pop pink balloons in the determined belief that a cure will be found for breast cancer, and pink will become “just another color.”

8_Vickie leads the victory lap
DANCING AND SMILING, Vickie Dunnum leads the victory lap at the Sole Burner Chaseburg fundraising event. The victory lap is walked after the ceremony to honor cancer survivors and those undergoing treatment, and in memory of those who have died from cancer.

Following the popping of the pink balloons, Vickie Dunnum, dancing and smiling, led what is known at the Sole Burner Chaseburg event as the ‘victory lap,’ where survivors and their families, and supporters take an energetic stroll through the park below Chaseburg, bordering Coon Creek.

9_Cancer Sucks
SURVIVORS taking the ‘victory lap’ at the Sole Burner Chaseburg cancer fundraiser on September 25 were greeted with the message ‘Cancer Sucks’ at about the mid-point of their walk.