By Martie Thompson

Florida native Martha Sweet said her life was changed six years ago when she, a recent breast cancer survivor, happened upon a booth at a concert at the University of North Florida promoting dragon boats. She had no idea what dragon boating was, but said she embarked on one of the greatest adventures of her life when she signed up.

Sweet was born in Tampa and raised in Lake Wales, which is where she met her husband, Howard. They were working with youth groups at their respective churches and after they met, she did what she always said she didn’t want to do: marry a preacher. Howard went on to seminary in Louisville and she graduated from Georgetown with a degree in psychology and sociology. They moved around a lot due to Howard’s career as a pastor and along the way, welcomed twins (a girl and a boy) in Louisville and a son in Tennessee. The family ultimately moved to Jacksonville in 1971 when Howard became director of the Child Guidance Center. Howard passed away 16 years ago and today, Martha Sweet lives with her cat and a bird and enjoys visits from her 10 grandchildren.

Support community journalism! Subscribe to the Mandarin Newsline today!

1) How did you come to choose Mandarin as your place to live in 1971?

We were living in a rental in Avondale when we first moved to Jacksonville. The Buckman Bridge had just opened, so we were on a Sunday drive. We got off the bridge, took a turn and then another turn and then there was our house. I still live in the house. I have wonderful neighbors.

2) How did you adopt your cat?

I was not a cat person, but she kept coming to my back porch looking for food and I fed her. So I guess she adopted me. I named her Ditch because that’s where she came from. I guess I am a cat person now.

3) What can you tell us about your breast cancer diagnosis?

I went to Mayo for my regular mammogram six years ago and they found a spot. They did the biopsy right then and there and told me I had breast cancer. So I had a double mastectomy, but no chemo or radiation. Then I went on with my life.

4) After you found out about dragon boating at the booth at UNF, what happened next?
Dragon boating was just coming to Jacksonville at the time. My first practice was a battle of wills … am I too old? Will I fit in? I did about 20 paddles that first day and was gasping for breath. I clacked paddles with the paddlers on both sides of me and was certain I wouldn’t be invited back. But everyone was so supportive and encouraging and I did go back. I found my life after breast cancer with dragon boating. My life has changed because something negative brought me something positive.

5) How has your life been impacted by dragon boating?

The dragon boaters are a loving and supportive and encouraging family to me. I’m more confident. I believe in myself because my team believes in me. One year ago, I was diagnosed with gastric cancer and had to have my stomach removed. I’m in remission. I rang the bell at Mayo! I haven’t been able to paddle lately, but my Mammoglam dragon boat friends have let me ride in the boat and some of us are planning a trip together. I believe that I will go back to paddling and this is my goal, because when paddling we all stroke together and move across the water. We hope to win a medal, but the most important thing is to finish the race and know that we gave it everything we have. That’s what I’m going to do.


Photo courtesy Marty Millard

Martha Sweet (left) with Jeri Millard, who introduced her to dragon boating.


  • Support community journalism! Subscribe to the Mandarin Newsline today!