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Looking on the bright side

By Terry Ouellette

In June 2015, I moved to London, Ontario and was recovering from a rather emotional and difficult time, having divorced in June 2014.  I had moved from Sault Ste. Marie to be closer to my daughter with her husband and very young children.  I would be seeing the rest of my family less often now – my parents, my two sisters, my daughter and her husband, and another granddaughter. and two step grandchildren.

Shortly after arriving, my mother passed away in October 2015, and then my father died in July 2016. My sisters and I were very fortunate to have had our parents until they were in their later years, but losing them both in less than a year was a lot to experience.

I’d had regularly scheduled mammograms since I was 50, and there’d always been a suspicious spot that required a second mammogram – always resulting in “no abnormalities.”

But then I noticed in April 2016 that the shape of my suspicious spot had changed.  I went for my regularly scheduled mammogram very soon after and was immediately scheduled for a biopsy and an ultrasound.

Sadly, I was given the results of my cancer diagnosis on the day I was driving home to Sault Ste. Marie to bury my father – August 2, 2016.  I’ll never forget that moment with my daughter. We both were driving home in separate vehicles having received this news, but we had to tuck it away and deal with it after the funeral.  My father deserved a decent burial and funeral; it was not about me at this time.   Only my closest family and friends knew about the cancer.  My father was a wonderful man – and I was happy as the people who came to pay tribute to him that night did just that.

My diagnosis was Stage II lobular breast cancer in the left breast (close to the heart). It was estrogen receptor positive, progesterone receptor positive, and HER2 negative.

I received a single mastectomy and chemotherapy (four treatments of doxorubicin hydrochloride and cyclophosphamide, followed by 12 treatments of paclitaxel), then 27 radiation treatments.

Chemo brain started at the beginning of chemotherapy and lasted until almost January of 2018.  Chemotherapy also caused fatigue (I really slept a lot) and also caused severe constipation – nothing worked well at all, and I tried everything that was suggested.  Other chemotherapy side effects included lack of appetite, lack of energy, hair loss, and puffiness.

Radiation caused burning and a lot more fatigue.  My skin turned black and peeled like snake skin in the heat of the summer, and it didn’t occur until the end of my radiation treatments.  I thought I’d escaped the wrath of radiation – but I hadn’t.

By this time, I was thinking that all I wanted to do was to be there for my daughter and her family here in London.  That’s what I’d moved here for, but of course I was limited.  She told me that was the least of her concerns. 

The miles seemed far from my sisters, my other daughter and my closest friends in Sault Ste. Marie.  I had to get through this knowing I’d be physically by myself most of the time.  It was foreign to me, of course. I didn’t know how this was going to work – but I knew I could get through this.

Another situation became very difficult. My daughter in Sault Ste. Marie was experiencing her own medical challenges at the same time, and I couldn’t be there for her. I knew she’d be fine as she has her own amazing husband, strong extended family, and friends, and everyone was there for her as well. 

It didn’t hit me for a while that my youngest daughter was dealing with her mother and her sister who were both going through major medical issues at the same time.  It was hard to be a mom, which was what I wanted to be. 

My support system was strong, and my fears were laid to rest, so the miles didn’t seem to be so far after all.   So many people offered help in many ways.  Fortunately, I never went to one chemotherapy treatment alone.  My sisters, my family, some cousins, and some of my closest friends took turns to come with me, which meant they travelled from Northern and Southern Ontario in the winter to be with me for those few challenging days.  It was wonderful that they were all there for me.  They took days out of their own lives to be with me and bring me comfort.

I received so many phone calls, so many texts, so many cards, and numerous visits from so many people. I even received a cookbook for cancer patients from someone I didn’t even know.  I’ve passed it on to another cancer patient friend since I recovered.

One dear friend texted me every day.  Just checked up on me – and I couldn’t always reply.  Another friend had her own medical and physical challenges, and yet she still offered to help me. 

I could go on and on. My support group was wonderful. One girlfriend called my support group “my cheerleaders.”

Oh, and what wonderful nurses and doctors I had. They took the time to listen, to let me cry, to provide advice, and to be there with the medical answers—and they did it all with their hearts.  They didn’t just do what was needed – they cared.  I didn’t expect this – at first I was afraid of everything – but they put my fears to rest and were there for me every time I needed them.

I’d like to say my mature age (I am 64) gave me strength. I’ve had several major surgeries, so a mastectomy was not really a big deal regarding the hospital experience and the medical system at the time.  My tumour was 0.5 mm from my rib cage, so the decision to remove the breast was easy to make.

I’m still very strong, and independent, and I push myself, as always.   I try not to go down that dark road too often of having only one breast, but once in a while, I look in the mirror and I cry. 

I live a wonderful life; I have wonderful family and friends, but some day, I’d like to have someone in my life again. Some day the right man will be there for me - as I am.

Reconstruction isn’t on the horizon for me yet – I still think about that 0.5 mm distance to my rib cage.

My body image?   Well, I don’t feel like I’m any less of a woman. I’m very glad my hair is growing back – that feels better now.  I can hide the fact that I had cancer.  I only share my cancer journey with whom I want to, and it isn’t visible to everyone anymore like it was when I had no hair.

I plan on continuing to live life to the fullest.

Cancer does not define me.

I love my life with my family:  I have grandchildren and step grandchildren that are a major part of my life.  My daughters and sisters are irreplaceable – and my friends are a huge part of my life.

I’m also back working part time after seven years of retirement, and I’m in a totally new field of work – and loving it!

I am, and always have been, a very optimistic “half cup full” person. I always have seen the bright side of any situation and thank goodness!  It’s helped me get through some rough spots in my life.

Because of my positive attitude, I was asked to speak to others going through this cancer journey.   I hope I’ve been an inspiration to some of those who have listened.  I truly believe in the power of positive thinking. 

Today I’m volunteering with various breast cancer activities – the CIBC Run (I do the photography for the run), as well as photograph fashion shows, teas, university events, and other functions.  I’ve met wonderful women, men, and their families – I hope I’ve helped them somehow.

I also look at life a bit differently – I don’t waste one minute!

Lastly, I decided to have myself photographed before my mastectomy.  The photographer (Jay Terry, London, Ontario) wrote a wonderful article and did a super job capturing my thoughts at the time.  Please take a look:  http://jaytphoto.ca/never-underestimate-power-positive-thinking/