I was granted the day off work on Friday so that I could go and speak at the Luncheon of Hope. Never having been able to be at this luncheon because I’ve always worked during the day, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was nervous. Everyone said the same thing: You’re old hat at this now; you’ve done this before. Yes, but the last time I spoke to a crowd of over 500 people it was dark, and there were dancing men, and a great deal of wine was consumed by the audience. Not quite the same gig.
There was a warm-up dinner the night before, and I had the opportunity to sit with the committee members in charge of this event, and meet the keynote speaker, Gerry Rogers, a fellow breast cancer survivor who I decided I quite liked when she told her story about how many women in her family have been affected by breast cancer, and still managed to do so with humour. She, her mother, her sister and two of her mother’s sisters, all diagnosed with breast cancer, and, as she so wonderfully put it, ‘not a tit among us.’ I was definitely looking forward to her talk, and I’m more than a little bit sad I didn’t get more time to sit and chat with her.
For those of you who are interested in seeing my speech, here it was. I can only hope it affected a few people the same way Gerry’s speech did me.
My name is Tanya Gouthro. Mother, daughter, sister, friend, lover, teacher, writer. I am a lover of kitchen dancing, hot yoga, walking in the woods, especially at this time of year, good film, good books and good wine. Talking about grammar actually quickens my pulse, and I love to take pictures of food. I am a bit of a klutz, evidenced by an attack by an aloe vera plant in France this spring, a platform heel-inspired tumble this fall, and a very smashed mirror last week. Any home improvement challenge leaves me with a flatlining sound in my brain. Not handy at all. But man, can I pick up a language quickly. I’d like to say that’s me in a nutshell. But one year, six months and four days ago I also became a breast cancer patient, and all of those other things took a back seat.
My tumour, when I found it, measured .8cm and it was alone. A month and a half later, when it was removed during my bilateral mastectomy and removal of 17 lymph nodes, that tumour had grown to 2.3cm and was now accompanied by 5 other tumours. Of the 17 lymph nodes that were removed, 3 of them tested positive for cancer. This cancer was not messing around.
I didn’t know how to DO Cancer. No one does. There is information out there. Lots of it. Also, many, many pink ribbons. But until you sit across from a doctor who tells you she doesn’t have good news, until the file with the red sticker on it saying Further Action Required bears your name, you don’t really internalize that information. You certainly don’t fully understand the extent to which Cancer changes a person. A family. A group of friends. A community. There is, I have come to learn, a language spoken only by those who have stared their mortality in the face, who have been presented with a statistic, a percentage chance that they’ll be alive in five years.
True understanding of the intricate ways in which this particular diagnosis and subsequent treatment and its consequent aftermath alter a woman, physically and emotionally, is reserved for the Warriors with whom I now share some collective memories.
Moments that stand out to me, the good and the bad:
My sister, taking my face in her hands on the day of diagnosis and looking me straight in the eye, crying, but so strong, saying “Okay. Listen to me. This is going to be a really crappy year. It’s going to be really hard, and then you’re going to be okay. Do you understand me?”
The surgeon in Winnipeg kneeling in front of me, drawing the ‘cut-lines’ on my torso prior to wheeling me in. And me ‘finding the funny’ in an otherwise terrifying moment – making a highly inappropriate comment to him about the last time a man was on his knees in front of me. Finding a way to laugh my way through the last time I saw my breasts taught me that this would become part of my approach to the entire year of treatment.
Having my PICC line inserted, which would remain in my body for four months of chemotherapy. Thinking I could do that appointment alone, and falling apart, totally unprepared for the impact of facing the reality of signing my life, and my body, over to treatment.
Having my ex-husband shave my head, as counterintuitive as you may think the combination of razors and ex-husbands may be, with our boys present, in anticipation of the loss in front of me, watching my youngest fall apart, and wrapping him up in my arms so that he could cry and I could tell him everything was going to be okay. I have found that if you say those words out loud often enough, their believability is heightened.
Having a full-blown panic attack when they started the drip during my 6th chemo session, and reaching up, because I thought I was going down, and grabbing at whatever would keep me standing. Unfortunately, this happened to be the nurse’s breast. I have apologized to that nurse several times now in public forums. I really hope she’s heard at least one of them.
Spending a few minutes in front of the mirror one day, nearing the end of chemo, and taking in the reality of my body with what I thought of as ‘no punctuation marks’. Hair, eyebrows, lashes, nipples, all body hair, gone. I remember being struck by the feeling that I was disappearing. And…that was the day I learned how to use an eyebrow pencil.
Laying in a radiation session, listening to the combination of the machines groaning and moving and zeroing on the next location to aim at on my body, and the 80’s radio station that played 2 and a half songs for each of my sessions belt out “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benetar. And trying very, very hard not to burst out laughing at that particular dark irony.
There is, I have found, almost always a way to find a ‘hook’ out of the dark places in which we can end up. Sometimes it’s finding the funny. Sometimes it’s a walk outside and a reconnect with our physical selves. Sometimes it means finding someone who’s walked on the same road as you to talk to. Most of the time, the hook pulls us up and out of the dark place, and allows us to be fully present in the here and now, which is really all we have.
And, sometimes, it’s really really challenging to find that hook. Last winter presented me with some of the most difficult months since my diagnosis. While I was able to find the funny when I lost my breasts for the first time, I found it much more difficult to do so when I ended up on an operating table twice in a week during the month of March, while the surgeons in Winnipeg told me to look to the side, saying ‘If it hurts, say ouch and we’ll put more local in’ and I closed my eyes and tried to maintain some sort of remarkably UNdrugged composure while they cut me open in front of a team of residents and removed all of my attempts at looking like myself again. Over the weeks that followed, when I began to grieve the loss of my reconstruction attempts, when I started to realize I was jumping at loud noises, that my capacity for sleep had disappeared, that I didn’t want to be around anyone, that if I was surprised by anything at all – a door closing, a knock on the door, a tap on the shoulder, spilling of milk, really – anything, I jumped, broke into a full body sweat, and then took several hours to convince my body to stop shaking. I could not find peace. I was not okay. Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Not just for soldiers, it would seem.
Part of treating this, for me, has involved systematically doing things that scare me, just a little bit, to show myself that I can come out on the other side just fine. Ziplining over a 200 foot canyon with my children, a road trip to the desert with girlfriends, a ride on a cable car on a mountain in Spain with my mother and sister were among the experiments this summer, a refreshing and very welcome change from the summer I spent on the couch in chemo last year. I then took another big step, one that made me so anxious in the weeks leading up to it that I often found myself staring at a blank television screen in my den, letting out my breath suddenly, having no idea how long I’d been sitting there, stiff as a board, holding it. I didn’t know how to return to work, knowing I was so changed, and thinking everyone expected me to be the same. Having felt so unrecognizable to myself for so much of the past year and a half, it was difficult to imagine trying to pick up where I left off.
Well, I went back to work. I was lucky enough to go back to teaching a group of students I had been teaching when I got diagnosed. There are a few additions to the class, and as I was going through some of my routines with them, as I began to let them know that if they spoke English in my class they would be doing pushups, one of my students chimed in, en français bien sur, : “Oh Yeah! In Madame Gouthro’s class we do push-ups and she does them with us!”
They recognized me. And that helped me to recognize myself a little bit more too. I’ve had a lovely soft landing back at work – a gentle way to try to get back to, or move toward, some kind of ‘normal’ again. And it is wonderful to have the time to do it the way I need to. Not everyone has that luxury. A year ago, I was not sure I was going to be around to tell my story this fall. Sharing my story with you today can now be added to that list of scary things that I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to do.
It is in the scary times, the dark times that hope becomes a lifeline. When the present is really really difficult, as it can be on this journey – surgeries, chemotherapy,radiation,reconstruction,Deconstruction,anxiety – they all come with a list of risks and side effects and complications. Sometimes we get lucky, and sometimes we don’t. Through all of it, we need desperately to know that there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. We need hope.
Events like today’s help to ensure that patients’ hope be fuelled by confidence in the state of the art equipment we have, and in the amazing medical staff we are lucky enough to have here.
Our hope is fuelled by friends and family. By laughter and tears. By research and by medicine. And, let’s admit it – a little bit of wine.
It is also fuelled by you, who have chosen to invest in that hope by attending today’s event. And if each of us in this room today were to pick up our phones, and use the text hope program to donate just ten dollars, we will have, in one short moment, invested over 5,000 more dollars in that hope, and in the betterment of our city’s ability to continue to improve our care close to home.
Thank you for your investment in my hope, in my fellow survivors’ hope. And thank you for listening, and for giving me the opportunity to say yes to something just a little bit scary again.
It went well. But what I really wanted to share with you is a story that Gerry shared. I really hope she doesn’t mind. It was a simple story, but struck such a raw nerve with me. She called all of us survivors up on stage with her nearing the end of her speech, so that she could help put a face to breast cancer.
Then she did something quite beautiful. She talked about the moment we all share, the moment when we see our scars for the first time. She talked about the first time her partner saw hers, how she looked at Gerry’s scar and said ‘I can see your heart beating!’ The way Gerry said this was in a tone of wonder, as though something amazing had been witnessed. This, of course, led to one of the people at the survivor’s table kindly supplying me with kleenex, because, well, when someone shares that much beauty with me, and it hits so close to home, the dam is broken, and there’s not much I can do to stop it. I want to thank her for breaking that dam. Sometimes it’s good to fully feel that pain, that beauty, that sadness, and that hope. Because that’s how I walked away from that luncheon. Full of all of that.
And maybe, from now on, I’ll try to keep my perspective changed. And I’ll try to look at my scars and see a heart beating just a little closer to the surface.
Thank you, Gerry.