IT’S OFFICIALLY SUMMER, the dog days for legacy media (when nothing much is supposed to happen—right) ?
There’s an exception to every rule.
Forest fires, flooding, war & mutiny, strikes & street protest, shattered economies, fiscal uncertainty—tornadoes a couple days back in central Alberta—with two months ahead before the fall kicks in, wow! So much for the dog days.
The new normal is chaos. There’s been a complete shift in just about everything that was status quo before the plague. Straight lines don’t exist. So, we’re mixing things up a bit. Frankly, we’re weary of polarized politics in the (former) petroleum paradise. And we imagine you are too.
Things are about to get personal: Today, Donna is publicly admitting she’s ‘damaged goods’ per se… And it’s a risk, she’s willing to take—opening up her diary to share a recent breast cancer diagnosis.
Navigating Canada’s healthcare system—for anyone in a similar predicament—isn’t for the faint of heart.
Just ahead, you’ll read her unvarnished insights & reflections. No wallowing in the sentimental. This isn’t about her; it’s about all of us who fear, or face cancer.
And as Donna winds her way through to (hopefully!) wellness, she’ll update the blog from time to time. Meantime, you’re invited to add what you know to be true from personal experience or what you’ve learned in the deep knowing of friendship with anyone wrestling with a cancer diagnosis.
Donna is up for just about anything you can throw at her.
She isn’t looking for a fight; it’s not about putting on a brave face, either.
Your body housing an alien of its own making. Maybe cancer isn’t something to be beaten. It’s perhaps a ‘thing’ we mortals need to learn to live with.
Also, please keep this in mind: A step beyond polarity (to our way of thinking) is real-life experience in a nervous dance—formidable partners—an elegant tango with a sense of humour.
And so to begin…
Not A Sisterhood I Want to Belong To
“This is not a sisterhood you want to be a member of, but once you are, you feel blessed by being in it,” whispers a friend who has survived breast cancer.
A routine annual mammogram—an appointment wedged between my 63rd birthday and Mother’s Day—revealed unusual calcifications in the soft tissue of my right breast. My brand new family doctor (I didn’t have a GP during most of COVID) was all over it and has me lined up for a follow-up mammogram and ultrasound in a week’s time. Suspicions confirmed, a biopsy is ordered and before the month of May is out, I hear the words nobody wants to hear: You have cancer.
It’s easy to dwell on all the medical procedures ahead —the possibility of a mastectomy, even a double mastectomy; the horrors of radiation; breast reconstruction. It’s all cringe-worthy. But first, I need to let my family know I’ve got the dreaded disease and at the same time reassure them, it’s not likely to kill me.
And there are friends who need to know. But I don’t rush to tell them. Not yet. I’m not sure what I expect of them. Some of my friends avoid hospitals, avoid sickness, even refuse to say the word “cancer” out loud fearing they will tempt the fates. And there are the cheerleader types who will tell me how lucky I am to have a cancer that’s treatable. While true, it’s not exactly good fortune that I’m feeling right now. I’m not a “woe is me” kind of gal; it’s just that I don’t know what I expect or need from others.
In fact, it’s all a bit surreal. Other than the bruising and bandages on my right breast—the physical result of piercing into the soft breast tissue with a long needle and hoovering around inside with a micro-vacuum to suck out nasties—my body doesn’t look any different. I don’t feel sick. But my identity has changed, irreversibly. I’m in some strange in-between place. Likely, it’s shock. It feels dissociative, like I’m talking about another person.
The day of the prognosis, I’m unsure of myself. I join neighbours in a 50-kilometre bike ride, as planned. I put a suit on and go downtown to a corporate directors event at the Petroleum Club, as planned. Then I move into the uncharted— have a “cancer” conversation with my husband, call my siblings, drive to the homes of each of my three sons and their partners and share the bad news. Everyone is caring and concerned—warm hugs all round, a few watery eyes, and sincere promises to “be there” for me.
Booby-Trapped in Yemen
People keep telling me, “Calgary is a good place to have cancer; we have some of the best treatment facilities in the world.” In other places, it’s unlikely my cancer would have been diagnosed at this early stage. British friends share horror stories of a National Health Service in decline. And there are countries in the world where breast cancer, if diagnosed, wouldn’t be treated.
It’s unusual, but I’ve spent a lot of time in Yemen and have deep knowledge of the pre-civil war state of that country’s healthcare system. After spending a decade working for a Canadian energy company with operations in Yemen–Canadian Occidental Petroleum, now Nexen Inc.–in 2001, I was invited by local communities across that country to help integrate female professionals (doctors, nurses, midwives and healthcare administrators) into Yemen’s failing healthcare system. Then, Yemen was the worst place in the world to be a mother. With the support of hundreds of volunteers from Canada, a non-profit organization I founded, Canada Bridges, trained thousands of Yemeni healthcare providers in paediatric emergency and maternal care.
Two decades ago, Yemen was just starting to contemplate cancer treatment. Physicians there—aware of the disease but with very limited resources to treat it—would share their sense of overwhelm, but only in private. A few of the more intrepid invited Canada Bridges to teach them more about early detection of cancers, including breast cancer. It was complicated; how did knowing you have cancer help if the disease couldn’t be treated? I found someone from Ontario with heaps of experience who was willing to get on a plane with a training team and travel to Yemen to teach local women a step-by-step method to examine their breasts.
When we landed in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, the expert’s very large box marked “training materials” attracted the attention of the customs officials. Aware that its contents included dozens of silicon breasts intended to be used for training, I jumped up on the container, planted myself there, and told the officials—in a mashup of rudimentary Arabic and wild hand gestures— this box could not be opened because it contained sensitive materials. In a conservative country like Yemen, there was a risk we’d all be sent packing if the box of boobs was opened in public space! Only when a local colleague arrived, to assure the airport security guards that we weren’t a threat, did I climb down. Our training team was whisked out of the airport, with the box unopened and a funny story to tell.
But, that wasn’t the end of the fun and games! A week later, we were in the coastal city of Mulkulla, working with Dr. Ahlam binBriek and other local partners, teaching women in that community how to examine their own breasts for lumps. This is a conservative country; post-pubescent girls and women wear dress in black chadors and faces are covered. Yemeni mothers have six to seven children on average, and breast-feeding is encouraged.
We’d been using the silicon breasts to train and that approach worked fairly well. Yet for some inexplicable reason, that day in Mulkulla, our expert trainer decided it would be better to demonstrate using her own breasts. Without warning, the expert peeled off her blouse and then her bra, to demonstrate breast self-examination on her own body. Women standing near the open windows slammed them shut, and the room started to quiver with giggles. Ahlam was sitting beside me; I leaned over and asked her if I should stop the live demonstration. She laughed and said, “No, this is one training session everyone will remember.” Ahlam was right; I’ve never forgotten being booby-trapped in Yemen.
Keep following this journey…