In the fall of 2017, I had a lead role in a play, What’s Eating You, by local playwright, John Hardie, in which I played a woman who is diagnosed with cancer, and who throughout her own cancer journey, actually helps to mend a family feud and bring people in her community together. It was not to be a role I saw myself playing in real life. I had always embraced a healthy lifestyle and thought if and when, illness would be something encountered in old age.
Fast forward to the summer of 2021 when I felt an odd sensation in my left breast. I examined my breasts and felt nothing out of the ordinary, so I did not think too much about it. In fact with my son and four grandsons visiting in August for a month, my focus was grounded in the energy and exuberance of these four very active boys. Sleep and mornings came early.
Life returned to its normal rhythm in the fall. There were elections to focus on, events to be organized, friends to connect with, all before the next wave of the pandemic would set us back yet again. Nevertheless, my body began signaling that something was not quite right. The sensation returned. I started to pay more attention and continued to check, but it wasn’t until October that I rolled over one night and felt a distinct lump. The next day, I made an appointment with my doctor. An appointment in November led to a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound in December. I heard the beep beep of the technician’s instrument and thought to myself, oh shit! The radiologist was called in and chatted with the technician as if I was not even there and then as he got up to leave, he turned to me gruffly and said, “It’s not good news.” “You will need to come back next week for a biopsy.”
It was a week later, December 21st that Doctor Belair, with a much nicer bedside manner, informed me that I had a couple of lesions in my left breast and would likely require surgery. The biopsy results would be communicated to my doctor in 5-10 days! Home to Google lesions and then wishfully thinking mine might be one of the four out of five cases that are benign.
The Christmas and New Year’s holidays intervened and it was not until January 5th that my doctor called to give me the news that I had cancer. By now, I was actually rather prepared and quite calm. Several very good friends who have had breast cancer provided me with good counsel and great encouragement. I wanted to get this behind me as fast as possible so I was actually anxious for next steps.
2022 began with the fast-spreading Omicron and an occupation of Ottawa (my office on Kent Street completely surrounded by trucks (thankfully I am teleworking) by people who claimed their primary reason for the occupation was to protest mandatory wearing of masks! Against this backdrop, I began my cancer journey.
January 12th, I met with my surgeon, Dr. Gauvin. She explained to me that she would remove the lump and take a couple of lymph nodes to see if the cancer had spread which would require another surgery! She said it was going to be quite a year for me and that I would likely need chemotherapy and radiation. As my husband I were digesting all this, she noted that I would be contacted in the next two months with a surgery date. Yikes! I had been thinking and hoping that surgery would be soon in the coming weeks, but two months. I politely asked, “Won’t it grow or spread? (like shouldn’t we be doing this soon).” She assured me that “it” had been there for a while and another two months would not make a difference.” I asked her if I should keep working. She asked if I wanted to, and I replied. yes. She said, “good.”
Now, I am not a patient person at the best of times, but now, when my very life depended on it, I was having to wait two months for a surgery. How would I manage this????
The first week was rough. Telling family and friends, my team at work. Confronting death, which comes to us all, but now a much closer possibility. My mind was hard to shut down. I drifted to snapshots of my past and then to images of what my future could look like and sleep did not come easy. Early morning is always a kicker in times of stress and the darkest hour is truly before dawn. Sometimes, I just had to get up, to not think of it any more and yet I could not away from the constant awareness of the cancer.
A week later a good friend and local biologist who is also living through cancer, stopped by. She told me of various cancer fighting therapies that I might find useful and in helping to boost my immune system. She mentioned the Centre for Health Innovation (CHI) in Ottawa. Another friend and cancer survivor mentioned the benefits of chaga chai in boosting the immune system and it wasn’t long before love that she is, she had dropped off all the ingredients. She mentioned meditation and visualization. Another friend and cancer survivor repeatedly told me I would get through this just fine and next year we would be Dragon Boat training and racing. Circles of friends embraced me whether literally or figuratively. At work and at home, I was truly lifted up by the power of love and compassion.
The tide had changed. I spoke to a naturopath at the CHI who has the wonderful name of Dr. Flower. Dr. Flower proved to be not only informative but delightful and I had soon signed up for a six week program for women newly diagnosed with cancer which touches on everything from the medical to the meditative. This was to prove to be another supportive circle of love and trust and empathy, led by another amazing woman, Anne Pitman. We truly were in this together.
One of the most powerful therapies, and one I am privileged to enjoy right outside my backdoor, was my daily outing with the dog in the forest and fields which surround me. It did not matter the weather, I would strap on my snowshoes and together with my trusty hound, we would wind our way through one well trod path or another, sometimes breaking ground anew as snowfall and snowdrifts obscured the trails. I had a certain ritual when I came to two venerable old trees and I saluted their majesty and gave thanks for their presence in my life and the oxygen they share. The sun and the wind and the quiet all comforted me and the pines and the cedars, birch and spruce whispered to me that they had my back. I felt carried. I slept well.
Finally, we (my husband Steve a constant at my side) had word that I had a surgery date – February 23rd! Yippee! Get it out!!!
Long Day’s Journey Into Night
February 23rd dawned early for us. The night before, the much-dreaded forecast of freezing rain had come to fruition. Our long lane was a skating rink. Impassable. Thankfully and with great foresight, Steve had moved the car to the front field, sanded the two hilly spots and left a bucket of sand near the car.
We got up at 4 a.m. after a fitful sleep, as we were worried about being able to get down the lane, up the hill, and onto the road. Steve walked down the lane with a flashlight to add more gravel from the bucket. given that the freezing rain had continued through the night and there was a new layer of ice. I was at the ready when he walked back and together, we tentatively made our way down the lane, tree branches crashing and blowing around us. The road at the top of our hill was also icy, despite having been sanded earlier in the morning. Steve thought we might have to wait for the sander to come by as it would likely do so for the school bus and folks heading to work. I was anxious. I was ready to walk to the Hull Hospital if I had to. We had waited two months for this date!
Steve said, “okay, let’s give it a try.” We got in the car and held our breath…we made it onto the road and crawled along, ever cautious of the potential of sliding in the ditch. In the dark of the early morning we suddenly saw headlights. The sanding truck approached and the last lap on our gravel road was travelled with ease. We were off.
We arrived at the Hospital 15 minutes ahead of schedule at 6:15 a.m. Steve dropped me off and I made my way to the 4th floor.
Arriving at the hospital in the early hours of the morning, there was no hustle and bustle. Having navigated the icy roads in the darkness, I was feeling rather triumphant. We made it. This was the day. In a few hours the tumour would be out!
Arriving on the fourth floor, there was one other patient also scheduled for day surgery. Once I had checked in, I was assigned a room where I left my clothes, donned a green hospital gown and was met by a smiling nurse, Daniel. Step one complete.
Daniel took me down to the radiology department where I was to have a blue dye injected in my breast to help identify the lymph nodes in preparation for surgery. There were three of us having the same procedure. A bit of an assembly line as given the bad weather, the dye which comes from the Cancer Centre in Ottawa and must be produced daily, was delayed. Oh-oh. A wee bit of concern tugged in my brain, but it was not long before the delivery was made and the three of us had our injection of blue dye. All of us were apparently quite tough as we were told many cry out. Step two complete. Well, not so fast…
To be effective for imaging purposes, it can take 20 to 40 minutes…and sometimes longer for the dye to take effect. After 20 minutes, Julie, the cheery technician, tried to take images from each of us in order of priority. Two of us, me being one, were not successful and had to wait another 20 plus minutes. In fact, it was an hour by the time Julie would spend the next twenty minutes taking pictures of my breast. No worries she said, she had called surgery to tell them I would be going upstairs for step 3 and should be ready in half an hour.
A lovely nurse with turquoise eyes by the name of Annie, wheeled me upstairs, took a mammogram. and then a gentleman came in to insert a few “harpoons” as guidance for the surgeon. Not a pleasant procedure! As I was lying on my side, harpoons pinching my delicate flesh, the phone rang. It was Julie advising that the images were not of great quality, and I would need to come back to radiology when she would try again! Two steps forward, one step back.
With the words of Captain Ahab assuring me I would be in the best hands with Dr. Gauvin, Annie took me back to radiology where Julie let me know that she had spoken to the surgical team again to tell them I was going to be a bit longer. I am surprisingly calm. Julie was just going to finish up with a heart patient and I was next; the priority patient. All good, until…
Julie and the previous patient pop out of the imaging room and Julie informs one of the ladies in the waiting room, that she can go home and they will re-schedule. The machine has ceased to function! Julie tells me not to worry, that she has called a technician and we should be good to go within the hour. Julie has again been in contact with the surgical team and apparently they would be will be ready to go anytime with the next two hours. Ommm. Still calm, I am however thinking, I don’t care if I have to be here to midnight, this cancer is coming out today!
All sorts of thoughts ran through my brain as I lay on the gurney and hear the technician and Julie discussing what the issue is. Things weren’t going well. The technician said he need to call the company who manufactures the machine to see if they can offer a solution. Now I am thinking, I cannot fucking believe this, but still pretty chill. Ommm. If it wasn’t so serious, it would be almost farcical.
At this point Ginette, one of the women in the waiting room is chatting with me. She got stuck driving in this morning and was helped out of the ditch by a lovely young man with a tow truck, who did not charge her for pulling her out. She proceeded to tell me her life story. Part of my brain was thinking, I really don’t care, and then the other part thought, ” I am not going anywhere and it will take my mind off my situation.” Ginette told me she goes to church every day and prays. Tonight, she was going to light a candle for me and the tow-truck driver. And not to worry, she wouldn’t forget. By now, I was thinking it was nothing short of divine intervention that was going to get me through this.
Julie popped out to see how I was doing and said, “You must be so stressed?” I resisted being facetious and replaying, “You think?!” I told her I was okay, and really, I think thanks to Ginette’s friendly chatter, some practiced meditations, some Springsteen, Bob Marley and Enya songs, and tracing my trails in the woods in my mind’s eye, I was okay. I was calm.
Then suddenly there was some activity. A woman I had not seen before dressed in scrubs, came out of a back room, and provided all three women in the waiting room with a note to go to Gatineau Hospital, where they would be expected. A discussion on the cost of parking ensued and whether said woman would provide a note for the parking attendant. This was not sounding good!
A lady there attending her elderly mother, kindly asked me if I wanted to use her cell phone. By now it was well after 12 p.m. Steve would be thinking I was out of surgery. I thanked her and asked her if she would dial and put the phone on speaker. Steve was incredulous and sympathetic, also angry that I had to be going through this ordeal. I told him that I would keep him posted. At this point I was thinking I don’t care if they have to throw me in a taxi and take me to Gatineau Hospital green gown, harpoons, blue dye and all, I was going to have surgery!! I had waited two months for this day.
And just then, Julie popped out again and said, “I’ve got it to work.” With a smile in my eye, I said, “When in doubt Julie, reboot.” We all had a good laugh and Julie patted me on the shoulder and said, “You are my priority, don’t worry.” “I will call up right away and tell them you will be ready in half an hour.” By now my breast must have been indigo. and I was thinking, please, please, please, all systems go.
20 minutes later, the dye was cast, images were good, the surgical team was at the ready and it was on to step 3 – surgery! I felt overwhelming relief flood through my veins as my companions of the last several hours wished me well as I was wheeled off to the surgical floor.
Outside the surgery theatre a nurse by the name of Lily took all my particulars and we shared a few laughs. The clock on the wall said 2:15 p.m. Some other attendant came by and put a gizmo that blew hot air under my cover to keep me warm. 10 minutes later I was taken into a room where another nurse and the anesthetist, Dr. Katz, got me prepped. I was so relieved to be there. We even kibitzed a bit and shared a few laughs as Dr. Katz walked me through what was happening and he mentioned that he loved his job. I was in good hands. 2:45 p.m. according to the clock on the wall and it was show time. Step 3.
In the pristine operating theatre, Lilly and Caroline with their colourful protective head scarves moved me onto the operating table. Dr. Katz stood at my left. Caroline told me to take a few deep breaths and exhale, and the last words I heard were those of Dr. Katz telling me to count and saying, “before you get to 45, you will be asleep.” Fade to black.
Step 4 – 4:30 p.m. Recovery. I woke up in the same room I had been in earlier with several other surgical patients. A nurse came to my side while I was still a little groggy and told me to take my time and that surgery had gone very well. Woo Hoo!
Not long after, I was wheeled back to the room with my clothes and given the drill by the evening duty nurse and a young intern. Anecdotally, it turned out the nurse travelled down my road regularly in the summer on her way to Low, just up the river. Dressed and ready to go home, I called Steve, who was surprised to hear me, thinking a nurse would likely be the one to call to say, you can come and pick up your wife. A stop at the local pharmacy for pain killers and he was at the hospital at 6:30 p.m.
By the time we got home it was after 7 p.m. I was starving, as I had not eaten since 5:30 p.m. the night before. It had been a long day’s journey into night.
My story does not end here, there could be further surgery, there will likely be chemo and radiation and I will have to find the fortitude necessary to continue travelling down this difficult road. I am encouraged by those who have already travelled this route and are doing well. I am encouraged by friends and family and colleagues, whose belief in me and my ability to come back to wellness, overwhelms me in the best of all possible ways, and come what may, I am profoundly supported and loved. That is my very good fortune.
Community of Care – Just Imagine
What I would like to conclude with, is my incredible respect and gratitude for those in the health care profession. For the last two years, these individuals have continued to help people, to treat people, to save lives. Despite a pandemic and the complications that it presented in pursuit of their work – throw in the mean-spirited and undignified nastiness of those that would stand in front of hospitals and care facilities and spit and heckle and mock these individuals – they showed up for work, often exhausted, demoralized and certainly, underpaid and undervalued.
Now that I am in my time of need, I can genuinely say that I have nothing but respect and admiration for all those who attended to me on the day of my surgery. They were all professional, respectful, kind and compassionate and I knew I was in good hands. This was a true community of care.
Shouldn’t every community be a community of care? That we think, that we plan, that we protect on the basis of care. That the weakest among us be entitled to the same benefits as the strongest.
Shouldn’t governments do their very best to provide a good life for all people? Shouldn’t health and education be at the nexus of a just transition?
Shouldn’t a just transition mean not only a transition away from fossil fuels and a punishing extractive culture based on greed, that not only has destroyed much of the earth on which we depend, but has led to war, after war, after war, but also a transition which embraces social justice?
We need to stop subsidizing corporations and the ridiculously wealthy. We need to stop ignoring the outrageous sums of wealth hidden by wily high-paid lawyers in offshore tax havens. There should be an end to tax dollars provided to a bloated military industrial complex which has become a behemoth responsible for untold suffering. If we did those two things, imagine how much wealth there would be to invest our tax dollars in health, education, job creation and a just society. Imagine how we could restore the earth and waters; just imagine the possibilities.
These are dark days. I woke the day after surgery on February 24th to learn Russia had invaded Ukraine. Only weeks before, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its dire warnings on planetary survival in its 6th annual report. Social inequalities have led to division and discord across the globe, as the age of disinformation rages on.
I can only hope that globally, national, provincial and municipal leaders find the courage and conviction to do what is right in meeting the challenges which confront us. The journey to a just transition will require all the strength, power and resilience that we the people can muster.
I am anxious to complete my cancer journey triumphant and to get back to working in my community for a just transition. Across all sectors of society, we must stand shoulder to shoulder with those unsung heroes and heroines past and present calling for equality, peace and justice for all. We are in the fight of our lives to preserve the life forces of our planet and leave a livable world for future generations. To borrow from Winston Churchill, it is my greatest hope that this will be humanity’s finest hour and greatest triumph.
I have mentioned in an earlier blog, in times of adversity my father was known to say, “It is better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness.” Tonight, like Ginette, I am going to light a candle. May its light shine across the universe for the peacemakers, the truth-speakers and seekers, the healers and the educators, and for all those selfless souls who no matter what their daily circumstances, act out of love and kindness.