Feeling at the very peak of health, Lynn Marks couldn't have been more surprised when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I was kind of blown away," she recalled. And with no connection to other breast-cancer patients, she felt isolated.

Fifteen years later, Marks, 65, of Center City, the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, knows that others are literally in the same boat, specifically one that dates to ancient Chinese tradition.

She is a member of a dragon-boat crew, Against the Wind, made up of breast-cancer survivors.

Founded in 2001, the crew works within the 90-person Philadelphia Flying Phoenix women's dragon-boat team.

Powered by a demanding paddling regimen, dragon boats, often adorned with colorful dragon heads, turn out to be ideal exercise vehicles for cancer survivors.

Typically, 20 paddlers, one steering person, and one drummer fit in a 38-foot boat.

The Flying Phoenix, created in 2003, competes in three divisions - competitive, professional, and the breast-cancer survivors.

The latter group consists of breast-cancer survivors ages 25 to 70.

In September, all three divisions traveled to Ravenna, Italy, to compete in the International World Club Crew Dragon Boat Championships, and the breast-cancer survivors came home with gold and silver medals.

In October, the crew went to Sarasota, Fla., for the first International Breast Cancer Dragon Boat festival, where they finished seventh among 101 teams.

The link between dragon boats and breast-cancer recovery dates to a 1996 study by Don McKenzie, a professor of sports medicine at the University of British Columbia. McKenzie found that the repetitive upper-body motion of paddling helped women recovering from breast-cancer treatment to combat some of the side effects.

Against the Wind's captain, Jean Ettinger of Elkins Park, said dragon boating was a way for women to build their physical and emotional strength. A paddler, she said, uses the upper body, core, and legs to push the boat through the water.

"It's amazing what it does to your body," Ettinger said. "Dragon boating itself is a total-body exercise."

Hype Mattingly, coach of the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix, said the teams have trained year-round on the Schuylkill. The Carneys Point, N.J., resident was not involved with the Against the Wind crew until her 2012 breast-cancer diagnosis, and while she was recovering, she was put on the crew.

During the season - April to October - the women train on the Schuylkill three to five times a week for several hours at a time. Mattingly said Against the Wind has world-class paddlers. And while the crew is about support, it is also about competition.

"Breast cancer," Mattingly said, "does not define us."

kflynn@phillynews.com

610-313-8105 @kflynn_13