Just before dawn, a full moon reflects off the Ashley River like a searchlight. The only sound is that of rhythmic paddles pushing a sleek rowing shell as it slices through the glassy surface like a razor.

Aboard are 14 women who have stared death down like a misbehaving child, breast cancer survivors, who dig deep into the dark water with each stroke.

Welcome to Dragon Boat practice, an hour of exorcising demons and using muscles you didn't know you had until the coxswain calls for more and you find it somewhere deep down within your soul.

Just a few years ago, putting cancer survivors in boats and putting them through their paces was a novelty in the world of learning how to live with cancer and its after-effects.

But it has since blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon.

Just a few weeks ago, these Lowcountry women, young and old, swept gold in a national event and learned more about themselves and each other than they knew before.

Next month, Sept. 11 and 12, they will go to Toronto, to test themselves against even greater odds, knowing the cure is not in the winning or the losing, but in the doing.

Hated it

Alice Turner, 58, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and entered the clinical world of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

That's when a researcher told her about the boats, and the people in them.

"I hated it the first time I did it, but I hated going to the gym even more," Turner said of these earlymorning workouts three times a week. "But by the second time out on the water I was totally hooked."

She was just one of the women rowing hard on this morning as the sun was breaking low across the city skyline.

With each stroke, their 4-foot-long paddles ripped the water in unison, moving the boat ever faster. Just like learning to live a new life, it's a team effort.

Those in the front of the boat, they say, set the pace; those in the middle are the engine; and those in back are the hind legs of the cheetah.

No whining

That's why they can cover 500 meters in about two minutes and make you wish you had stayed in bed.

To prove it, they put me in the shell, handed me a paddle and showed no mercy.

After four minutes of trying to keep pace, my arms burned and my legs were like linguine. And we were only pulling 80 percent. This is not a pity party.

"As soon as I put an oar in the water I was addicted," said Sylvia Huskey, who is 71 years old and has beaten cancer twice. "Even though everybody here is going through a lot of stuff, there is no whining on this boat."

And, win or lose, there never will be.

Reach Ken Burger at kburger@postandcourier.com or 937-5598 or follow him on Twitter at www.twit ter.com/Ken_Burger. To read previous columns, go to postand courier.com/burger.