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The inspiring story of the Ballymena mum who battled breast cancer at the same time as her own mother... and then floated a brilliant idea for Northern Ireland's own dragon boat team

Joanne Rock, who won the Game Changer accolade at this week's Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards, talks to Stephanie Bell about how a chance encounter while buying herself a new bra changed her life

As she took to the stage to pick up her Belfast Telegraph Sports Award at our glittering event last week, no one could have guessed the personal courage and determination behind Joanne Rock's smile.

The teacher and mum-of-three from Ballymena not only brought a new sport to Northern Ireland when she launched the Lagan Dragons in 2015, but also a new lease of life for its now 60-plus members.

The club, which she set up for breast cancer survivors and their families, has made such huge strides in its short history that this summer Joanne will captain a team competing on the world stage at an international race in Italy.

Joanne was overwhelmed to join the biggest stars in local sport at our gala awards evening on Monday, where she was presented with the inaugural Game Changer Award.

The accolade represented a hat-trick for the club which has also recently been named Charity of the Year, and won the Healthy Living category at the World Health Organisation Healthy City Awards.

It is quite an achievement for a woman who admits she hasn't played any sport since leaving school and first took up dragon boat racing to help with her recovery from breast cancer.

Currently the second fastest growing team sport in the world, it has been a game changer for her and all of its members.

Joanne says: "I haven't been involved in sport since I was in the school netball team and the only boat I had ever been on before was the ferry to Scotland. It feels quite surreal to have come this far.

"I was in a very low place after my treatment finished and I took to exercising to help alleviate those symptoms. I know how much sport helped me and being part of a team sport is even better and the support we give each other is just phenomenal.

"We are all in the same boat, literally, and it is just fantastic to get the award. It was such a huge surprise, especially as we are a new sport in Northern Ireland.

"It was such an amazing night and my whole family were there. It means so much to me and all the Dragons to get it."

Joanne (48) lives in Ballymena with her husband, Rev David Rock (54), minister of Ballymena Methodist Church. The couple have three children: Joel (23), Ethan (20) and Sarah (12).

She works as a special needs literacy teacher with the Education Authority, providing support to children in local primary schools. Joanne was just 37 and supporting her mum through her second battle with breast cancer when she was given her shock diagnosis.

"I had three young children; Sarah was only two at the time," she recalls.

"At the age of 37 you don't expect a cancer diagnosis to come knocking on your door.

"Mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2007 for the second time. In March I found a lump during a self-examination, so the two of us went through surgery and treatment together.

"It was really lovely to have her at the sports awards with me as we have been through so much together, and it was nice to have something celebratory to share, it was wonderful."

Due to the family history, Joanne was tested for the BRCA 1 gene, which can be hereditary and which greatly increases the chance of having breast and ovarian cancer.

When Joanne tested positive she opted to have a double mastectomy and preventative surgery because of the risk of ovarian cancer.

She then underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy in what she describes as "a very long, drawn-out process".

Her mother was going through the same traumatic journey and mum and daughter proved a great support to each other.

Indeed, it wasn't until her treatment was finished that the emotional toll kicked in.

"Mum was amazing and she was able to encourage me and prepare me for what lay ahead," says Joanne. "I also had great support from family and friends and people in church.

"When you are going through the treatment you put your head down and get on with it but, when it is all finished, and I've found this is the same for others, you find life in general difficult to cope with.

"You have the fear of reoccurrence and trying to come to terms with the changes in your body, which is very different after surgery. Your physical resources are also much depleted."

And that's exactly when Joanne discovered dragon boat racing. She had gone to a specialist lingerie shop in Newry where she knew the owner, breast cancer survivor Jean McCracken, stocked a special range of bras for patients who had come through surgery.

The two women got talking and Jean revealed she had been invited along to try out dragon boat racing with a team of breast cancer survivors called the Plurabelle Paddlers in Dublin. She asked Joanne if she would like to join her.

Joanne recalls: "She had been asked as a result of a chance meeting as well, and I decided why not, and we both went along.

"They wanted ladies from the north of Ireland to try and form an All-Ireland team for an international breast cancer paddlers' festival.

"I was hooked from the beginning; the team were so welcoming. The focus was on the paddling, working together and getting stronger and fitter."

However, working full-time and with a young family to look after she soon found the commute to Dublin every week for training difficult.

And that's when she had the idea of starting her own team in Northern Ireland. "By that stage I had become addicted to the sport and found it such an incredible, uplifting experience," she says. "I loved the support of the group.

"I just thought why not try it here, and Cancer Focus supported us initially in trying to set up the club. Basically, what we were trying to do was just spread through word of mouth and on social media."

The club started in 2015 with just six members and now has 60, all of whom are breast cancer survivors, and their relatives. Members ages range from those in their 30s up to their mid-70s.

Joanne discovered that three dragon boats had been bought for the World Police and Fire Games a few years earlier and arranged to hire them from Bryson Lagan Sports. The dream is to one day have enough funds to buy their own boat, which costs £7,500.

The girls meet to paddle on the Lagan every Saturday morning when they usually have two boats out.

Dragon boat racing is over 2,000 years old and is a huge sport in Asia and Canada, and in recent years has become massive in America and across Europe.

The boats are 40ft long with 10 benches, and there is a drummer at the front and a helm at the back with 20 paddlers in between. Last year the club held Northern Ireland's first ever dragon boat regatta at the Waterfront Hall, which proved a big success with more than 20 teams taking part.

Now they have their sights set on the world stage when they will be representing Northern Ireland at the International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission Dragon Boat Festival in Florence, Italy, in July.

Joanne will captain the team and over 30 members will be covering their own costs to travel to the event.

The Dragons are currently fundraising to help cover some of the associated costs and recently launched a 'Sponsor a Dragon' campaign.

Joanne says: "This year I have the chance to take our first team to the Dragon Boat Festival - it's a bit like the World Cup.

"We're so happy but we also need funding too, so if anybody would like to sponsor a Dragon, I would ask them to please have a look at our website."

It goes without saying, though, that it's impossible to put a price on the support Lagan Dragons has given people who have come through breast cancer. Joanne adds: "After treatment, to be able to move on together and celebrate life and give hope to other people and enable them to live a full, active life beyond breast cancer is just incredible.

"The club is all-inclusive; we have people of all ages, from all sections of the community and all parts of Northern Ireland.

"You don't have to be physically fit to join. Everybody has to start somewhere. And we've all started from scratch.

"I couldn't possibly run Lagan Dragons alone. There is an amazing talented group of volunteers on the committee that make it happen."

Joanne adds: "For everyone involved it is a chance to find confidence again and become more active. The River Lagan on a Saturday morning is like the M1 it is so busy, and it's fantastic.

"To exercise in a group is wonderful but to do it on the water is nothing short of magical."

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