A Teal Christmas

Like every Christmas since my cancer diagnosis, this one will be unlike the ones I celebrated before I became a cancer survivor, A major cancer diagnosis often causes you to view the world differently—things that once seemed enormously important during the Christmas season lose significance and become almost trivial. Personally, I’ve discovered that having elaborate decorations, expensive gifts or wearing designer winter fashions all matter less to me now. These things frequently seem to fade into irrelevance as I confront a life-threatening illness. Meanwhile, my relationships with other people, discovering ways that I can make a difference in the world and learning more about the essence of who I am are at the forefront of my agenda and have an extremely high priority to me during the holidays.

Many cancer survivors will attest to the fact that there are times during the season when they are surrounded by people and still feel very alone. This type of emotional isolation occurs when you discover that you can no longer relate to people in the same way you did before. Things that were important to you in the past are no longer important to you, and your friends and family don’t understand why you have changed so much. I’ve noticed that the books I read, the movies or television that I watch and the activities that I like to participate in have all changed a fair amount since my cancer diagnosis, so have the topics that I prefer to discuss. This transformation has affected my personal relationships and how I feel about those closest to me.

Since my ovarian cancer diagnosis eight years ago, I’ve been required to think about my mortality. I’ve also had to tend to many practical matters that I didn’t anticipate that I’d have to deal with until I was much older. While everyone around me carries on with their lives, I’ve had to stop and reflect on some of the more profound questions that others have the luxury of ignoring. Individuals diagnosed with cancer suddenly find themselves contemplating existential questions. Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Who am I? These issues are brought to the forefront of your mind when facing a potentially deadly disease. During the holidays I sometimes feel frustrated because most things my friends and family care about seem fairly trivial to me now. For example, they got cut off in traffic on the way to one of their annual Christmas parties or the latest popular gadget for someone on their Christmas list is currently out of stock.

I still enjoy traditions like exchanging gifts, and most Christmases I’m able to partake in a delicious turkey dinner. However, it’s the small things that matter most as I savour each moment. Every year I make a Christmas list that I share with family members, but the items on my list are usually inexpensive things that are intended to make my daily life as a cancer survivor more pleasurable. The grand total is almost always less than two hundred dollars. It may sound trite, but I carry within my heart a list of things that can’t be bought or wrapped up in a box. If I wrote them down, my Christmas list would read like a combination of a bucket list and some of the hopes and dreams that I have for all women living with ovarian cancer. 

Of course, the best Christmas gift that every current and future ovarian cancer patient could receive is a cure. But in the meantime, we need newer and better treatments as well as ways of preventing the disease or detecting it sooner. The survival rate for ovarian cancer remains dismal compared with most other types of cancer, this is essentially because the majority of women aren’t diagnosed until the disease is advanced and has spread beyond their reproductive organs. There is no reliable screening test for ovarian cancer and the symptoms are often vague. One common misperception is that a Pap Test for cervical cancer can also detect the presence of ovarian cancer, it definitely cannot. 

I strongly urge anyone who would like to make a difference in the fight against ovarian cancer to donate to research this holiday season. Fortunately, women whose lives have been affected by this terrible disease have a number of non-profit advocacy groups working diligently for us. For Canadian citizens or those residing in Canada I recommend donating to Ovarian Cancer Canada OCC. For American citizens or those living in the United States I recommend donating to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance OCRA.

Happy Holidays!

If These Walls Could Talk

Women in southern Alberta who are diagnosed with gynecologic cancer become patients at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre and are treated by the gynecologic oncologists there. However, when surgery is required we become patients on Unit 42 B, located in the adjacent Foothills Hospital building. I first entered the unit like almost all of us do, I was wheeled in on a gurney following major abdominal surgery that had just been performed by one of western Canada’s top pelvic cancer surgeons. It was the evening of December 13, 2011, and I can vaguely remember being transferred to a bed in a darkened room, beside me was one other patient. Outside the sun had already disappeared, and as I drifted in and out of consciousness I visualized the rush hour traffic—thousands of people racing home for dinner, perhaps some rushing to the nearest mall for yet another round of Christmas shopping.

The first night I struggled with some post-operative vertigo and I could hardly focus each time I opened my eyes. The room gradually stopped spinning as the dawn approached, meanwhile morphine dulled my pain and I reached down once or twice to feel a large compression bandage covering my abdomen. At first, I mistook the female resident who came to examine me on rounds that morning for one of the nurses. I didn’t yet realize that residents do most of the rounds on the Foothills cancer wards and report back to the oncologists and surgeons. The other morning routine that soon became engrained in me was having my blood drawn, the hospital lab technicians would regularly make their rounds of the unit at five or six in the morning. 

So, what is the worst thing about being on Unit 42 –aside from being sick or having cancer of course? A number of things: the helplessness; the feeling of anonymity; the rote and the repetition; being talked about and talked to, rather than talked with; the waiting; and the loneliness. I watched as the occasional short-term stay patient was relegated to the hallway due to the unavailability of rooms. It was a reminder to me of how drastically the situation for patients and their families has changed in recent years. Once hospitals were where you stayed when you were too sick to return home; now you go home anyway, cobbling together your own nursing services from friends, relatives and drop-in professionals. I admire the nurses who work on Unit 42— I remain grateful for the ones who went out of their way to make me more comfortable, especially those who took a couple of extra minutes to offer me some needed words of encouragement. In general, the staff does their best to provide first-rate care, even on an overcrowded unit in what is unmistakably a vintage 1960s building.

My experience that December was likely influenced by the fact that it was only the second time in my life that I’d been hospitalized, and the previous time it had not been on a large oncology unit. This time my situation seemed more unbearable to me, I felt somehow traumatized. Being on a cancer unit shakes your illusions of immortality. It robs you of the sense of invincibility and innocence that once protected you. I’d never directly experienced such an atmosphere—one filled with hope, fear, anguish and despair. There were times during my stay when I could almost see it oozing out of the drab, greyish walls that surrounded me.

LIke many of the other patients my surgery had been fairly extensive, it had ultimately involved a small bowel resection as well as the removal of my appendix and omentum. Time crept slowly as my condition gradually improved. Due to some minor complications, it took until December 24 for the oncologists to finally agree that I was well enough to be discharged. During the course of my stay I had endured blood transfusions, numerous tests and scans and too many IV medications for me to keep track of. I was so incredibly anxious to go home that I was already changing into my clothes when my mom and brother appeared in the door of my room. As I left the building through the busy lobby that Christmas Eve, I realized that psychologically I would never actually leave behind the experience of being a patient on Unit 42. I knew it would influence the remainder of my life.

Celebrating the Ovarian Cancer Community

In the past few years I’ve noticed a growing amount of energy and a stronger sense of purpose within the Canadian ovarian cancer community. Not that we haven’t always been a small but passionate group, committed to fighting this disease and the devastation that it inflicts on women and their families. However, I’ve noticed a gradual shift from when I was first treated six or seven years ago. When I was initially diagnosed with ovarian cancer in November 2011, I can remember that Ovarian Cancer Canada’s primary focus seemed to be on awareness and prevention as well as on support and better resources for women already fighting the disease. But now they have adjusted their mandate to involve more advocacy at the level of the federal government. Pushing for additional research and better treatment options for women with ovarian cancer has become their most important objective.

An estimated 2,800 Canadian women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, an estimated 1,800 die from the disease. There is no question that ovarian cancer research is significantly underfunded and that more has to be done to develop better treatments. Scientific progress in the field has been agonizingly slow, more than half of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer still die within five years. Like many who have battled the disease, I dream that perhaps one day soon there will be a test that can detect ovarian cancer in its early stages. The majority of women are currently diagnosed after the cancer has spread beyond their reproductive system. Meanwhile, additional research in the area of immunotherapy might give renewed hope to many of us living with ovarian cancer or facing a recurrence.

 

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It was a major triumph for the Canadian ovarian cancer community when the latest federal budget allocated 10 million dollars to ovarian cancer research. Over the past four years I’ve cheered on the efforts of Ovarian Cancer Canada as they relentlessly lobbied the federal government to invest the much needed 10 million. Numerous meetings with survivors on Parliament Hill helped persuade key politicians that better funding is needed to save thousands of lives. “Today, the Government of Canada has taken steps to invest in needed research which will translate into scientific progress against this disease. This announcement makes an important commitment to women’s health and equity in health care – and it is a milestone made possible because of you,” wrote Ovarian Cancer Canada CEO, Elisabeth Baugh.

While it’s true that ovarian cancer is most often diagnosed in women in their fifties or sixties, it’s a myth to believe that it is only an “old woman’s” disease. I was 46 years old when I found out that I had ovarian cancer. I’m always shocked when I learn about women much younger than I was receiving a similar diagnosis, my heart aches as I witness a life-threatening disease try to shatter their hopes and dreams. It hurts me to see the impact that ovarian cancer can have on their relationships, careers and future ability to have children. I have deep admiration for younger ovarian cancer patients, they often possess a wisdom and maturity that seems beyond their tender years.

 

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Ashley Shandrel Luther  (Elly Mayday)
April 15, 1988 — March 1, 2019

I recently mourned when the community lost a powerful advocate and inspirational leader. The internationally renowned model Elly Mayday passed away in March. Elly Mayday’s given name was Ashley Shandrel Luther. She was born on April 15, 1988 and grew up in Aylesbury, Saskatchewan. The body positive model and activist was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was just 25. Elly was diagnosed with Stage 3 ovarian cancer around the same time that she had two modelling contracts offered to her. But instead of stepping out of the light, she welcomed it. “I figured that maybe I could help someone going through something similar, while continuing on with my own dreams. I mean, I was going through it either way, why not make it as positive as possible?” she once said. Elly vigorously pursued modeling while bravely sharing intimate details about her cancer treatments with her huge number of fans and social media followers. Her legacy will continue to be an inspiration to many.

Health Care for All

When I was first diagnosed with cancer in November 2011 I was like many Canadians, I was proud of our universal health care but I had never really been required to test it. I had never dealt with a chronic or life-threatening illness before. I’d never even been hospitalized for surgery or seen the inside of a cancer centre. My innocence of what’s involved in being treated for cancer was shattered almost literally overnight. It took three surgeries and several rounds of chemotherapy to force my disease into remission, along the way there were too many outpatient appointments, tests and scans for me to count. I’ve currently logged thousands of hours in hospitals and seen dozens of physicians and physicians in training, that’s enough to consider myself an insider when it comes to the basics of Canada’s health care system.

It is by no means a perfect system and I realize it has many flaws, but I would still defend it especially against the way that health care is delivered in the United States. “Regardless of political allegiance, Canadians are nearly unanimous that a universal health system is a good thing— for reasons of economics and social justice,” writes Andre Picard in Matters of Life and Death. Indeed, the role of Tommy Douglas in shaping publicly funded health care over half a century ago is celebrated and sometimes mythologized. Obviously, I have a reason to get more emotional over Douglas and his contribution than most Canadians. As a cancer patient I acknowledge his legacy as I go through my treatments and each time I use my Alberta Health card or red Tom Baker Cancer Centre card.

Tommy-Douglas

Tommy Douglas speaking at a political rally.

 

Lately I’ve been reading a lot online and in the media about the Canadian health care system and how it stacks up against the radically different private health care system that is offered in the United States. Needless to say, President Donald Trump’s attempt to repeal Oboma Care has brought these important issues to the forefront. I belong to a Facebook group for ovarian cancer survivors and the women are predominately American. I shudder at the issues that many of them are facing in terms of insurance and their finances. For example, one woman in the group posted that she felt pressured financially to return to her job during treatment.

“I had to go back to work this week, well I had no choice. I need to pay my health insurance premium. My job is very physical so I had to get clearance from my doctor. My next chemo is Tuesday it will be my 5th of 6. I have never felt this exhausted.”

When I learn about cases in which people seem desperate or on the verge of financial collapse, I can only say that I’m thankful beyond words that I live in Canada. Here I can receive excellent state of the art care without the financial burdens that are faced by many U.S. cancer patients.

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Many Americans criticize Canada’s public health care system because they perceive it as having long wait times and outdated technology. This has definitely not been my personal experience as a cancer patient. I will never forget when Dr. Danielle Martin, a Canadian health policy expert, travelled to Washington to testify before a special senate hearing. Senator Bernie Sanders had organized a hearing about what the American health care system could learn from other countries about controlling costs and ensuring universal coverage. During her testimony, Dr. Martin was confronted by a rather smug U.S. senator. Her composure and the way that she handled the situation made many Canadians, including myself, proud.

SENATOR BURR:  Dr. Martin in your testimony you state that the focus should be on reducing waiting times in a way that is equitable for all. What length of time do you consider to be equitable when waiting for care?

MARTIN: Well, in fact the Wait Time Alliance in Canada, sir, has established benchmarks across a variety of different diagnoses for what’s a reasonable period to wait . . . You know, I waited more than thirty minutes at the security line to get into this building today, and when I arrived in the lobby I noticed across the hall that there was a second entry point with no lineup whatsoever. Sometimes it’s not actually about the amount of resources that you have but rather about how you organize people in order to use your queues more effectively. And that’s what we’re working to do because we believe that when you try to address wait times you should do it in a way the benefits everyone, not just people who can afford to pay.

SENATOR BURR:  On average how many Canadian patients on a waiting list die each year? Do you know?

MARTIN: I don’t, sir, but I know that there are forty-five thousand in America who die waiting because they don’t have insurance at all.

Words That Heal

National Poetry Month, which takes place each April, is a celebration of poetry introduced in 1996. Those of you who follow The Teal Diaries are aware that I don’t often write poetry, however I’ve been inspired during my cancer treatments to pen a small collection.

In writing The Decades Pass I was motivated by a poem called He is Allowed into the Lab by Michael Harris. Like Harris, I’ve chosen to use the microscope as a metaphor for the intense scrutiny of the self and one’s life that occurs when one is diagnosed with cancer. My poem December Night was inspired by my first night recovering from cancer surgery.

 

The Decades Pass

Decades ago in my school’s biology lab I stuck a lancet in my finger.
One or two bright red drops on the slide to examine.
Under the microscope I saw my tiny cells in motion.
I gazed in awe at the unfolding miracle.
Precious in worth, exquisite in their design,
how perfect they were to my innocent eyes.

Astonished then to behold the building blocks of life,
but now what have they offered me in return?
Each one is fragile and prone to malfunction,
imperfect under the oncologist’s microscope.

Beneath that microscope I have suffered far too long,
enduring the relentless scrutiny of my diminutive body.
I am tired of never-ending demands for perfection,
of being another pathology to be cured.

Put away the microscopes, the anticipation, and the longing.
Each day is a blessing for me to enjoy in quiet solitude.
At rest, I ask myself why did I ever demand more?

 

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December Night

“Were you on Unit 42 after your last surgery?”
I hear the nurse ask as I regain consciousness.
“No,” I mumble in slow motion through a thick fog.
I’m transported on a gurney, oblivious to the fact that
it’s early evening and my destination is the cancer ward.

I arrive and the darkness welcomes me on a deep
winter night, a crushing stillness surrounds me.
A compression bandage covers my fresh incision,
I reach down to touch my surgeon’s trademark.

My mother arrives and I have nurse Crystal.
A morphine pump to control my pain.
My throat is parched and I ask for water.
Not yet, Crystal calmly removes my glass.

For those below it’s simply another December night.
The world is turning, only two weeks until Christmas.
Outside an endless stream of headlights pressing in unison
toward some crucial or important goal.

New Year’s Promises

I don’t generally believe in the tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, but I’ve still chosen to make some promises for 2018. I’ve learned that the most important promises are the ones that I make to myself, changes I initiate in an effort to improve the quality of my life or to help nurture a sense of purpose.

I’ll begin by taking a close look at some of my relationships. Many experts argue that the most important choice you’ll ever make is the people you surround yourself with. Since my cancer diagnosis I’ve basically developed zero tolerance for having toxic people in my life. In 2018 I promise to do all that I can to eliminate the power these individuals exert over me. There are some obvious signs of a toxic person and you’ll generally recognize it when you are in such a relationship. Here are some of the common red flags:

  • Nothing you can say or do is good enough.
  • They comment on the smallest flaw or perceived imperfection.
  • They drag up your past and won’t allow you to grow or be different.
  • They act like they are fabulous and never make mistakes.
  • They leave you feeling guilty and ashamed of who you are.
  • They are critical, controlling and don’t think about your needs.
  • They leave you feeling beaten, wounded, battered bruised and torn.
  • They violate your boundaries and never respect no.
  • They don’t care about your feelings and they like to see you suffer.
  • It’s always about them and what they think and want and feel.

If you notice these signs, it’s best to cut the person out of your life completely or to at least keep them at a distance. Such individuals are capable of inflicting serious emotional and psychological harm, especially if you are in frequent contact with them over a prolonged period of time.

 

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i hear a thousand kind words about me
and it makes no difference
yet I hear one insult
and all confidence shatters

focusing on the negative

I can definitely relate to this poem which appears in the collection The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur. I promise to be less critical of myself and to focus more on why I am a special and worthwhile human being. I promise to focus on my positive qualities and the valuable contributions that I am able to make while I’m in this world. My battle with cancer has revealed to me that people often won’t love and respect you until you choose to love and respect yourself.

Finally, I promise to be more mindful in my day to day living. I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to quiet my mind and focus my attention is a technique called mindfulness. The renowned scientist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered using this method with cancer patients and other groups at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Mindfulness is basically just a way of paying attention, a way of awakening our minds and being present in the here and now. With principles found in Buddhism, mindfulness teaches us to live the moments contained in each day rather than focusing on what might lie ahead.

Acceptance and letting go are crucial components of mindfulness. A philosophy of mindfulness encourages us to come to terms with our life, even difficult experiences such as a cancer diagnosis. Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. Mindfulness doesn’t require that you have to like your situation—you don’t necessarily have to assume a passive attitude toward suffering or life’s unfairness. However, you must come to terms with things as they are and acknowledge them, whether it’s a diagnosis of cancer or the possibility of its recurrence.

Winter’s Wrath: What Cancer Patients Need to Cope

I’ve lived my entire life in the harsh Canadian climate and over the years the winters have become ingrained in me. It seems like I’ve endured too many winters to count and the last six of them have been as a cancer patient and cancer survivor. For the over 1 million inhabitants of Calgary, Alberta, the local winters are long, bitter and frigid. The season seems to last forever and the extended deep freeze is only interrupted by the occasional chinook. Not surprisingly, our comparatively short summers are relished and savoured. The months of July and August are like manna from heaven and offer a precious respite from the unrelenting severity of our climate.

Studies have revealed that winter is especially daunting for cancer patients—it’s a time of year that represents an assortment of physical, emotional and psychological challenges to anyone unfortunate enough to be battling cancer. For cancer patients, warmer climates and summer months can be much easier to tolerate. Given this fact, here are some of my recommendations for those of us condemned to endure another prolonged winter.

Get a Flu Shot

On a physical health level, influenza and the common cold abound during the winter months. Cancer and standard cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, frequently weaken the immune system, which helps fight off these viruses. People with cancer or a history of the disease are more likely to have serious complications if they get the flu. Some other high risk groups include pregnant women, young children, people over 65, and those diagnosed with lung disease, heart disease or diabetes, They are more likely to end up in the hospital, some might even die from flu-related problems. Getting a flu shot is strongly recommended for most people with cancer as well as cancer survivors. Their family members are normally encouraged to get immunized too.

 

Winter

 

Stay Warm

I strongly suggest that you have a wardrobe of warm winter clothes on hand, including sweaters, parkas, boots and gloves. Deprived of the warmth of summer, individuals with cancer may be at above average risk for hypothermia and other dangerous medical conditions triggered by cold temperatures. When our body can’t produce enough heat to stay warm, hypothermia occurs. Certain medications and medical disorders associated with cancer or cancer treatment can interfere with our body’s natural ability to adjust its temperature. Dehydration, a common side effect of cancer treatment, and having a low amount of body fat may also increase this risk. In addition, some cancer patients who are unable to be physically active may have reduced blood flow, which can lead to hypothermia.

Don’t be SAD

Ultimately there is the emotional and psychological impact of the winter season. Weather often affects people’s moods. Sunlight breaking through clouds can lift our spirits, while a dull, rainy day may make us feel slightly gloomy. While noticeable, these shifts in mood generally don’t affect a person’s ability to cope with daily life. As cancer patients, however, we are sometimes more vulnerable to a type of depression that follows a seasonal pattern. For some people living with cancer, the shortening days of late autumn are the beginning of a type of clinical depression that can last until spring. This condition is called “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” or SAD. Luckily there are ways to cope, sitting near a window or getting outside for a short period of time each day can help. Light box therapy is a popular and often very effective way to cope with mild Seasonal Affective Disorder. The lights are effective because they mimic the sun’s rays.

Pursue a Hobby

Winter is the season to take on an indoor hobby, this is especially true if you are facing cancer. When cancer patients undertake these activities, whether individually or with the guidance of a creative art therapist, they stand to benefit psychologically and emotionally. Recently there’s been a trend toward simple or old-fashioned crafts and hobbies such as knitting. Other common winter diversions include baking, building scale models or simply getting lost in a good book. Some adults, including myself, are even using colouring books to relax and reduce daily stress. This concept started several years ago with the publication of Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden. Her colouring book for adults has since been translated into 14 languages and has sold over one million copies.