Pencils, passports and paranoia (Or, I bought a heavy-duty pencil sharpener the other day.)

The catalyst.

The catalyst.

I bought a heavy-duty pencil sharpener the other day. This may seem like an act that should be ranked right up there with I grabbed a newspaper, or I watered the plants, but for me it was far from trivial. There were four to choose from, ranking from the very-cheap-may-last-the-year version to the mediocre battery-operated type, and then there were two heavy-duty sharpeners, with bigger price tags but which came equipped with heavy cords and big promises. Mine promises to last beyond my far-off retirement, in high-traffic areas such as classrooms or large offices. I considered it an investment. And a huge leap of faith.

Some of you are no doubt scratching your heads at my chatter about pencil sharpeners, and others, who have been forced to see life in a way that forces them to hesitate to plan for their futures, may be getting it.

I haven’t renewed my license for more than one year at a time since I got sick. When I renewed my passport, I went for the five year renewal rather than the ten, because, well – that part’s probably pretty obvious. When someone tells you you have cancer, and when that delicious luxury of being able to blissfully utter phrases like ‘when I retire’, or ‘in ten years or so’ is removed, you stop making assumptions about longevity. And, if you’re like me, you stop daring to look forward to things that are really far off. You say things like ‘if I get to get old’ instead of ‘when I’m older’. And, if you’re like me, when you go to your oncology appointments and they tell you everything looks good and your blood work is great and they’ll see you in three months, there is still a small, slightly irrational red-faced Tanya inside your head shaking the lovely pink-shirt-sporting doctor and yelling I DON’T BELIEVE YOU. Because you’ve had the bad appointment too. You want proof.

On my last appointment, which very nearly coincided with my two years past-chemo anniversary, I brought in a little sticky paper that my lymphedema specialist (so yeah. That’s happening.) had written on. Four possible causes for my very sore, slightly swollen arm. This is kind of a synopsis of how that appointment went.

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The physiotherapist announced that she was just going to jot a few things down for me to show my oncologist at my appointment.

  1. Cellulitis: Bad sunburn, Very high anxiety/stress, lots of massage in left armpit.
  2. Blood clot: Venous doppler?
  3. “It could be your cancer coming back. But I’m not going to write that down.”
  4. *Lymphedema: add sleeve.

Wait – what??

So I hyperventilated my way through the two hours leading up to my oncology appointment with a couple of friends and presented that lovely little sticky to my oncologist, who lifted my arm up, showed me how the veins in my hand flattened when it was held above my head and filled when I put my arm back down again, assuring me that I wasn’t going to drop dead of a blood clot letting loose and filling my lungs in the next ten seconds. Whew. Well then what about this cancer thing?? (If I could somehow make the words build into a panic-filled-hysterical crescendo for you, I would.)

Poke. Prod. poke-prod. Inhale. Exhale. WELL???

“I don’t feel anything going on in there. You’re fine. There’s nothing happening. Go have fun.”

So this is when I peer into his eyes to see if he’s trying to trick me. I make him double-check my blood work. It’s when I get a hug from my friend who’s just seen me through this appointment, and my whole body exhales, my shoulders come down about two inches, and I desperately want a burger. (That’s traditionally how these appointments go. I panic and have no appetite leading up to them, and then generally by the time I open the exit door to the parking lot of the hospital, I am ravenous and want a burger.)

Post-appointment relief.

Post-appointment relief.

So back to the pencil sharpener. Believing that I’m going to be around long enough to really get my money’s worth out of this pencil sharpener is a leap of faith. It’s not, to be clear, about the sharpener. I mean it’s pretty and everything, but it’s not that that excites me. It’s the hope. The tentative belief. It’s something I’ve decided to do more often. When I renew my licence plates again, which I am usually very bad at, it will be for two years, not one. And when I renew my passport, I am going to take the ten year option, dammit.

Because it’s nice to have something to look forward to.

Strangers, space and stories (or, how I finally made some room)

Sometimes life places people in your path at exactly the right moment, in exactly the right place. A stranger who wants to talk on a plane, or a stranger who’s okay with silence. Sometimes the universe is kind that way. We all know that sometimes that’s not the way it goes, and we deal with those days too.

I was at the market a few weeks ago, picking up some gratitude gifts for the people who would be putting us up on our road trip. I picked up a Jamaican meat patty downstairs, made short work of it, and headed upstairs to say hello to a friend whose art has found more than one home in my house. En route, I passed a man I have known, but not known, since we were kids. 13, to be exact, although he lied about his age way back when. I’ve had pictures of that 13 year old in an album for – well, since I was 13. It never really made sense to me that we somehow made an unspoken agreement that we didn’t know each other. When I moved here, and our paths crossed over the years, and they have often crossed, we never spoke about having met each other. I thought he had forgotten. It was a Grade 8 class trip, and there were many people there. Easy to get lost in the shuffle of memory files.

Well, for whatever reason, I stopped in my tracks this particular Saturday morning, and backtracked. Decided I needed another beef patty. Called him by name, tentatively. Put out a bridge. And in that moment, in a flurry of handshakes, hugs, I’m sorries, and laughter, he crossed the bridge, and we both gained a friend.

Why did it take almost 30 years? How many other misconceptions have hindered relationships? How many of us walk around hogtied by stories we tell ourselves, or that others have told us?

We went for a walk in the woods yesterday, one of those transformative, energizing walks in the woods that creates all sorts of space in one’s head. I’ve been really trying to find my hook for writing for the past couple of weeks and it hasn’t come, until one of many moments that stopped me in my tracks during our walk. I was telling him a story from my past during our walk. A story about regret, a story that still makes me feel shame, a story about treating a stranger poorly. My new friend stopped me. Said ‘Hey. I don’t want you to tell that story again. You don’t need to. It can stay here. And that’s okay.’

Whew. Well, let’s take that lesson and splash it all over my life, shall we? There are so many stories that don’t need to be told again. Stories that don’t make anything richer with their telling, stories that don’t do anything but bring pain up fresh again. Some stories just need to be put away.

And then he did this, after a good feed of leftover Indian food:

Everything in its place.

Everything in its place.

And there it was. Space created. Sure. It’s a napkin and a jewelry bag, probably with a bit of curry on it somewhere. But it was a powerful image. Put those stories in here, he said. That small little space is where they can live. You, though. You live out here. Look at all that room.

Yeah. I think that’s where I’ll live.

Flip or flop, front or back (Or, making the reconstruction decision)

Last week I got the call I’ve been waiting for (and maybe dreading in equal measure). The local plastic surgeon, who had had my referral in since early November, and whose answering service clearly stated that if your referral was less than four months old basically don’t bother leaving a message, was ready to see me. Like soon. Like today.

My hope for reconstruction was that I would have the Diep flap surgery, an abdominal surgery that involves taking the skin and fat from your abdomen (I’ve been growing mine since August) and moves it to your chest, covering mastectomy scars and forming lovely plump breasts made from your own flesh. Dreamy, right? No muscle removal necessary, minimizing the risk of hernia and other various sundry annoyances. My surgeons from Winnipeg encouraged me to gain 10-15 lbs and come back when my skin was nice and strong and they would fix me up. Yeah. Not going back there. That decision was made about two months after being diagnosed with PTSD, following my two-in-a-week wide-awake surgeries there, when my implants were summarily removed in front of a team of residents and I was lucky enough (please, please hear my sarcasm here) to be very much awake and present for all of it.

I was very excited to hear about the new surgeon in town. I knew he had done the Diep flap surgery, with much success, many times before.

Well. It turns out he doesn’t do it here. There just isn’t a big enough team. And I get it. They need a specific kind of plastics team to do this surgery. There’s micro-surgery involved. It’s pretty complicated. Blood supplies being transferred from groin to chest and such.

What he does do is the latissimus dorsi flap surgery. He takes a flap of skin AND MUSCLE from the back, tunnels it under the skin under the armpit onto the chest, so that it actually never leaves your body. Reattaches it and forms, again, a lovely breast. Not so plump though. Tissue expander (again), swapped out for implants later (again), but with much less risk, because the skin he’ll be working with has not suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous radiation. That skin, apparently, is simply no longer viable. Whatever that means. The surgeries are not without their risks, for sure.

There is a very intimidating booklet on all the risks involved: scarring, bleeding, infection, wound problems, bruising and swelling, damage to local structures, nerve injury, anaesthetic related complications, systemic complications, mood changes, cosmetic complications. The list is long.

There is a very intimidating booklet on all the risks involved: scarring, bleeding, infection, wound problems, bruising and swelling, damage to local structures, nerve injury, anaesthetic related complications, systemic complications, mood changes, cosmetic complications. The list is long.

What all of this means is that I have a decision to make. Do I stay close to home, to family, far away from planes I have to travel with drains hanging off of me, and go with the loss of a muscle from my back, apparently a ‘climbing’ muscle which I won’t miss very much, even in yoga, or do I embark on the endless back-forth-back-forth consultations, pre-op, operation and post-op appointments in another town, far from home, so that I can have the cadillac of breast reconstructions? Do I want my scars in the front or the back (the new ones, I mean)? Is it more acceptable for me to sport a new, hip-to-hip scar above my C-section scars, or to sketch out some new ones, armpit to armpit across my back, that can be neatly hidden by a bra strap that I may not even need with my new stand-on-their-own breasts?

I have four weeks to decide. Well. I have all the time I want to decide. But it would be in my best interests, I think, to figure it out soon. Because this is starting to feel like the never-ending breast saga. Surgery can’t happen until at least July. Likely not until the fall. Which is about 5 months later than I had hoped.

I’m going to weigh the pros and cons. Think about my family, my kids. I’m going to cross my fingers and hope I make the right decision for me, one that will allow me to look at myself in the mirror and see something other than the punishing scars of cancer. One that will allow for full recovery, supported by surgeons I trust and people I count on.

Fingers crossed. And all good vibes appreciated!

Fingers crossed. And all good vibes appreciated!

Ready or not. (Or, the return of the teacher formerly known as Madame Gouthro)

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Ironically, Madame is allergic to apples. But maybe if she gives one a day to the students, the doctor will still stay away.

 

You can never go back. (I know this, and yet I have repeatedly made attempts to do so over the course of my life, never with any good result.) So when I say I am going back to work, well, it doesn’t mean what I think it means. Or what it’s supposed to mean. Or something.

Permission to go back to work. What it really means is permission to attempt to return to some sort of routine. To go back to a familiar place, be surrounded by familiar people, and perform a very familiar job, all as a person with whom I’m not yet really familiar. To leave sick behind, and try to be normal. Or, my favourite, get back to my old self. It means changing my purpose from healing (on a good day) or surviving (on a not-so-good day) to heading a classroom full of spirited, hormone-riddled students and helping them get through this school year and emerge better than they were at the start. These kids very much need for me to be okay. And I will be.

It’s just that when they crowd in for a hug, and say ‘T’es retournée!’ or You’re back!, they don’t necessarily know that it’s not entirely true. The Madame Gouthro they knew is changed. She’s never coming back. There’s a new one, but what’s strange is that I haven’t met her yet. I’ll meet the new Madame when the kids do, and we’ll have to figure it out together.

I practised sitting here today. I found myself holding my breath a lot. Tomorrow, I'll go in and practise breathing at that desk.

I practised sitting here today. I found myself holding my breath a lot. Tomorrow, I’ll go in and practise breathing at that desk.

I have spent time in her space every day this week, and I’ve started to try to make it just the way I think she’d like it. I’ve put out bowls of apples for the students (old Madame did that; they liked it.), cleaned out cupboards and drawers and organized resources for her. I brought a few talismans from home and put them on her desk, because I think she might need a few of these with her in the first few weeks. I’ve tried to choose natural fabrics and calm colours, and I’ve bought her some plants, because I know she’ll want as much green around her as possible. I still have a lot of work to do to get the room ready for her, but it will be done for Tuesday.

I found some great quotes to inspire both her and the students.

I found some great quotes to inspire both her and the students.

 

Twine, burlap and wood. And green. Lots of green.

Twine, burlap and wood. And green. Lots of green.

And then, Wednesday morning, after I leave my house and turn the key in my lock and after I drive to work, after I put my lunch in the fridge, check my mailbox and head upstairs, only when I turn the knob to my classroom and meet all those expectant smiles, will I meet Madame Gouthro.

I think she’ll be okay.

Road-trips, revisits and revelations (Or, how I made up for last summer)

It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. It’s just that I’ve been too busy doing the things I want to write about to write about them. Now, summer is coming to a close (the days always seem to speed up at this time of August, don’t they?) and I can sit down, close my eyes and think about how lucky I’ve been, and enjoy that for awhile before launching myself back into the routine of work.

Last summer was spent on the couch, watching everyone else around me hit the road, pitch tents, wander away to far-away places and generally enjoy life while I sat, very much not enjoying life, although that’s not to say I wasn’t grateful for it. I shipped my kids off to day camps so that they’d be occupied, and although I’m sure they were mildly entertained it didn’t touch how we usually spend our summers. I vowed this summer would be different. And it sure has been, although it hasn’t been what I would have expected. I guess, as a friend pointed out, I decided to say yes. To all of the questions to which my answer was no last year, I have tried to answer yes. To the little thoughts that could become big ideas that could become actions, I have also tried to say yes.

Like this, Mom! (I don't ever, ever need to do that again. But that was an amazing moment.)

Like this, Mom! (I don’t ever, ever need to do that again. But that was an amazing moment.)

Let’s start with the little thought that occurred to me a few months ago: I’d like to photograph the desert. Normally, that thought would have been followed by oh yes wouldn’t that be nice, or maybe someday. This time, my next thought was who can I convince to come with me, which prompted a series of phone calls, two refusals, one yes, and then another yes, which followed a bottle of wine and my finger hovering tantalizingly over the purchase ticket button on my air miles site. Two takers, two airline tickets, one very packed truck courtesy of my very well-equipped gear-happy friend in the prairies, and we were off. We said yes.

I was so looking forward to driving that trip. Unfortunately, when my turn came to drive, I learned what one of my triggers is for this anxiety beast I’m currently wrestling (I do think I’m winning, most of the time. But he’s tough.) The unexpected. Being surprised. Blindsided. Something as simple as a phone call I wasn’t expecting was, at the beginning of this summer, leaving me shaking and ‘zappy’ for several hours afterward. On the road trip day in question, the combination of getting very scary news about a dear friend, driving someone else’s vehicle, and those sneaky mountains that spring up around corners when you’re driving through Wyoming woke that anxiety monster up and rattled it, resulting in me trying to drive, and feeling like there were electrical currents (somewhat ironic, given the nature of the emergency concerning the very dear friend) shooting through my body. I tried to breathe my way around turns and up hills, and I gripped the steering wheel with sweat-drenched hands at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock, as one should, but after about two hours of fighting agoraphobia and vertigo and suffering through full-body sweats and yoga-breathing, I had to admit defeat. Which meant that, until we returned to the very-flat landscape of Montana on the last day of our trip, until I had received good news about my friend, and until I had done enough little scary things to make my confidence a bit stronger, my two fellow road-trippers did all of the driving. They did so without judgement, and without complaint, and for that I am eternally grateful. It meant that I got to watch all of the unapologetic beauty that frames the (very long) drive to Goblin Valley State Park, where we were lucky enough to stay for our time in the desert. We set up camp there in the dark, as we had the night before on top of a very high, very cold mountain (it’s very difficult to light a fire when you’re up over 7500 feet!), and woke up to this.

This was right beside our campsite - completely invisible in the desert dark night. This kind of sandstone surrounded us for three glorious, very hot days.

This was right beside our campsite – completely invisible in the desert dark night. This kind of sandstone surrounded us for three glorious, very hot days.

Saying yes. Should I climb the rocks? Yes. Should I risk the road-trip I can’t afford? Yes. Should I zip-line, and let go with arms and legs open wide so that I can see that joy in my kids’ faces? Yes. Should I go swimming? Yes. Should I wander down to the shore in the dark just to look at the moon by myself? Yes. Should I introduce myself to the homeless man I recognize and whose story I’ve always wanted to know, and buy him a beer? Yes. Should I drive the extra six hours to revisit the place where I learned French, and share that place with my kids? Yes. Should I send maple syrup to the man who wrote about honey? Yes. Should I change flights last-minute to sit with the friend whose accident terrified me? Yes. Oh. And should I try driving again before the road-trip ends? Yes. Because I’ll be fine.

 

Should I stop amongst the goblins and do the handstand over and over again, until I get it right? Yes.

Should I stop amongst the goblins and do the handstand over and over again, until I get it right? Yes.

Saying yes this summer is helping me to shake that monster that’s been haunting me since March. He’s not gone; he’s sneaky and he’s very tricky. But he’s learning to keep his distance. Yes scares him off just a little bit. 

You just never know how many opportunities you’re going to get to say yes. My two cents? Say yes now. Don’t wait. 

Spanish, Cedar and Surfacing (Or, PTSD – not just for the shell-shocked)

I knew something was up when I started to jump at loud sounds. I started to make a mental list of the new symptoms I was feeling a few weeks after the second ‘awake’ emergency surgery. It went something like this:

I’m not sleeping. I can’t nap. When my body tries to fall asleep I am jolted awake by what feels like an electric current, every time.
i have NO patience. I go from 0 to 100 in seconds. Things that I can normally navigate are making me exasperated. Angry. Irritated.
I can’t handle being around a lot of people at a time. I break into a sweat and feel twitchy and want out.
I am jumpy. Loud noises make me feel that electric current feeling. I physically jump and startle at anything unexpected, even a hello from someone that I’m not expecting. I want to turn the volume down on my phone.
I feel like I haven’t taken a deep breath in weeks.
My neck and back are so tight that it is beyond sore – deep tissue pain. I know this is where my body holds all of my stress. Usually.
When people ask me how I am, I am often unable to talk about it, and I cry.
I’m not writing. Can’t write.

My system has taken a hit, in more ways than one. When I went in for my physical with my doctor, I brought some of this up, and fell apart, completely, in her office. The words that kept coming out of my mouth were the same.
‘I’m not okay.’
‘I’m not myself. This isn’t me.’

40 minutes later, I left her office with prescriptions for massage therapy, physiotherapy, and an anti-anxiety medication. And maybe a little bit of hope.

I have some pretty strong feelings about these types of medications – I do feel that they are over-prescribed. I do think they can be bandaid solutions. Also, I like to think I’m strong enough to handle just about anything. And I am. I also think that there are some times when some sort of chemical re-balancing needs to take place in order to get ourselves to the state where we can do the things we need to do in order to work some stuff out and move forward.

Now is that time for me.

I was worried about taking it. I was scared it would zombify me, numb me out, change my personality, take away my fire, flatten me, kill my libido. The pharmacist suggested I start by taking half a dose, which is 5mg. I dutifully cut my first pill in half and told myself I would give it two weeks and see how I felt.

I really hesitated to share this part of my journey. Worried that others would see it as weakness. Concerned about the stigma I feared would attach itself to me. Now, a few weeks in, I think, like much of the other super-private-bordering-on-gory-personal detail I’ve chosen to share in this forum, someone else may find it useful. I have already had two conversations with people who are going to their doctors to check it out because they need a bit of help coping with the relentless anxiety that hovers constantly.
I have stuck with the half dose, because I like what it’s doing and I see no need to go to the full dose. My doctor agrees. What I have noticed thus far is this:
Four days or so after starting it, I was standing in my kitchen at about 4 in the afternoon and I yawned. Stretched. Felt like I could lie down and take a nap. In my pre-cancer life, I was always tired in the late-afternoon. It was the first time in almost a year that I felt normal fatigue, at a normal time for me. To feel my body relax enough to yawn actually brought a smile to my face. And some joy. It felt so normal! I took note of it and moved on with my day. Later that night, at about 9:30 or so, I felt it again. Normal tired. (!!)

Over the next few days, I did have a couple of dizzy spells. I had two days of persistent headaches. They’re gone now.

Here’s what I find really interesting. In the past two weeks:
I have cleaned out closets and drawers.
I cleaned out my basement.
I moved my son’s bedroom.
I filled 5 recycling bags and several boxes of things to give away to the Sally Ann.
I had a door that’s been broken for weeks repaired.
I did my taxes.
I have begun to learn Spanish and have completed 20 lessons and corresponding quizzes and oral labs.
I have done yoga.
I have done pilates.
I have walked approximately 50km in the past two weeks.
My television has not been turned on this week.
I feel productive.
I feel (most of the time) like I’m in control.

Whew.

Having spent the last couple of months in recovery mode (anxious-twitchy-healing-bandaged-not-allowed-to-‘resume normal activity’-being-un-bandaged-and-then-re-bandaged-and-barely-keeping-a-lid-on-things), I cannot say enough about how good it feels to get back to doing the things I love. To sleep in in the mornings. To organize my day around exercise and getting into the woods or close to rapidly melting ice and fast-moving water. To cook. To plan. To look forward.

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I was in the woods today, on a messy-muddy-icy-wet hike with two girlfriends, and I stopped in my favourite spot on the trail and told them this was the part I liked the most. One of them, in on a visit from out of town, noted that we were standing in a cedar grove. It’s funny; I’ve never even thought about what kind of trees they were. I like that it feels dark, haunted, that the ground is almost always black littered with yellow. I like that the trees are almost all uniform. I like the bark. I feel small there; the trees are tall. The light is at best filtered in that grove; in the summer it’s always just a bit cooler than on the rest of the trail. The air changes. It feels quieter, lower than the hillier part of the trail. It’s almost always a place where I stop and take a few really deep breaths, in through the nose, and breathe in the smell. There is something about the smell in that one spot. I have always been drawn to dark, woody smells. Sandalwood. Patchouli. Cedar. They make me feel connected. Being in that particular cedar grove, I feel like I’ve been invited in on someone’s secret. I love it there.

When I got home today I thought it would be worthwhile to look up cedar and see if there was anything new I could learn about it, something that would tell me why I am so drawn to it. I found some of the information interesting, and it made me smile.

Cedar trees often live a long time. (I like that.)
They are used for making canoes and other boats, boxes, bowls and baskets. (My nest is full of baskets, and the canoe is an obvious connection for me.)
The wood of cedar trees is very resistant to disease. (Sounds good to me.)
The wood of cedar trees has a very pleasant smell. (Maybe I’ll look into adding this to my perfume concoction in France?)
The part about mature trees cedars often having hollow trunks was not, I found, without its irony. (I can still find the funny. Check.)

I feel, overall, like I’m starting to surface. I feel, almost completely, like me.

Belated-ness, bachelors and bravos (The I”m-sorry-I’ve-been-away-so-long-but-I’m-back-now-post-that-will-be-followed-by-a-real-one)

A few weeks ago, I had the honour of being the guest speaker at the Bachelors for Hope Auction here in Thunder Bay. Somehow, I ended up with two full tables of family, friends and colleagues present, who got themselves dolled up to varying degrees, some stepping decidedly out of their comfort zones to do so. I can’t believe I didn’t get a picture of everyone. I guess I was a little distracted, and by that I mean terrified, nervous, convinced I wasn’t going to be able to walk in heels after this year spent largely in Blundstones and Cougar boots (I actually practised walking the ramp to the podium about ten times), and also quite certain the fake eyelashes I had been convinced to wear were going to detach themselves mid-speech and blind me so that I wouldn’t be able to read the speech my mother had so kindly printed out for me in large print so that I wouldn’t have to wear my glasses (they wouldn’t have fit over the eyelashes anyway.) I’m actually not joking. The level of anxiety I have experienced over the past couple of months has put me in this kind of state of mind quite often. That’s fodder for another post. 

There were many people who wanted to hear my little blurb, and it’s for those people that I am posting it now. I think it went well. Some people laughed, some people cried, and everyone stood up at the end. Here it is. 

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My name is Tanya Gouthro. I am mother, daughter, sister, friend, lover, teacher, writer. I am a lover of kitchen dancing, hot yoga, trail running, good film, good books and good wine.

One year, and 27 days ago I also became a breast cancer patient, and all of those other things took a step back.

My tumour, when detected, 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. 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.

True understanding of the intricate ways in which this particular diagnosis and subsequent treatment alter a woman, physically and emotionally, is reserved for the women I am now completely comfortable calling Warriors out there, 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 suck, and 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 being 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, prior to starting 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 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, and watching my youngest crumbling, 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. If you’re here tonight, Nurse, I apologize. Again.

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, missing. I remember being struck by the feeling that I was disappearing. And then learning to use an eyebrow pencil really, really well.

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 the (kind of 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. 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.

And, sometimes, it’s really really challenging to find that hook. This winter has presented me with some of the most difficult months of the entire year. I won’t share the gory details with you tonight, partly because tonight is a celebration, and partly because I’m just not ready. I am very thankful that my current difficulties are not being caused by cancer.

I haven’t found my hook yet. I’m working on it.

I will say that it is in 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 – they all come with their 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.

The Cancer Centre has, throughout my journey, helped to provide me with that hope. I had excellent care.
My treatment was seamless and all of the worry and questions were taken away from me during that time. The Centre was flexible and allowed me to ‘Do Cancer’ my way – which included having an entourage at every chemo session, sometimes in costume and sometimes not, but always raucous. The people at the Cancer Centre made sure I had the ‘party room in the back’ whenever possible, because they understand that everyone needs to find their own way to get through treatment. Mine was just a little louder than some others’.

I was lucky enough to have care close to home, which is not the case for everyone.
During the Look Good Feel Better workshop I attended, I met three young women, all mothers, who were undergoing five weeks of radiation treatments here in town, which meant they were away from the people they needed to be around the most: their families.

Our Cancer Centre really does provide hope and excellent care to people in our region.

Nights like tonight 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.

It is also fuelled by you, who have chosen to invest in that hope by attending tonight’s event.

Last year I came to this event freshly diagnosed, and prior to my first surgery.
I was scared, and I was not, to be honest, very excited about attending. About ten minutes into the event, my best friend reached over and grabbed my hand, tears running down her face, as they were mine, and said “Sweetie, we need to be here!!”

She was right.