I grew up on a Saskatchewan farm. My first trip to the Yukon happened after university with my roommate.
We both found jobs waitressing at different highway lodges.
In the fall, I left to work in Saskatchewan and wound up driving back the next summer. After spending some time in La Belle Province de Quebec, to improve my French, I started farming some of the same land where I grew up. This was a grain farm only, so I returned north in the winter, where I met my partner Al Foster in 1975.
I continued to farm, spending my summers in Saskatchewan and my winters in the Yukon, until we decided to sell the farm in 1992.
My mother died of breast cancer at the age of 42 when I was 17 years old.
She left behind her husband and eight children, ranging from the age of five to 18.
I always thought that if anyone else in the family would get breast cancer, it would certainly not be me; after all, I lived the good life, ate well, exercised, did all the right things … well, it was quite a shock when results from the needle biopsy came back as positive for cancer.
Right away, my reaction was “take it out!” so the local surgeon performed a mastectomy, and I instantly felt relieved.
But then I had to wait to see if the margins of the breast were clear, and if the lymph nodes were compromised.
The waiting is horrible. You think of it all the time.
I was lucky as it looked like the mastectomy had taken everything out. There was no strong recommendation for chemotherapy or radiation. I was told I was a good candidate for taking the oestrogen-blocking drug Tamoxifin, but declined. I decided instead to do some cleansing and fasting, and really try to lead a stress-free life. What helped me a lot while I was going through this was talking to a neighbour who had been diagnosed with breast cancer about 10 years earlier. Just the fact that she had survived and was living a full and productive life was what I needed to see.
My diagnosis happened in 1996. After that, I kept hearing of other women who had breast cancer. I forget what year I started hearing about breast cancer dragon boat teams, but in 2000, while on a river trip, I met RCMP officer John Grant and his West Coast traditional First Nation canoe being used in the Journeys through Yukon Times, a Youth Millennium Project.
Sharing a ride home with him from Dawson, I asked him if he would consider letting a group of women paddle his boat, as a northern version of the southern dragon boat races.
He was quite supportive of the idea. So the gears started turning.
In the fall of that year, Ava Christl came back to the Yukon, recently diagnosed with breast cancer. She had also thought we should do our own northern version of the southern race.
We started going to breast cancer support group meetings, asking if there were other women interested in doing something local. We approached the Yukon River Quest board of directors to see if they would allow a voyageur canoe to participate in the 2001 race, as a demonstration category, and they readily agreed.
So the search for a boat was on.
A few options presented themselves, but we settled on Kanoe People’s Big Orange (which, by the way, will be in the race again this year paddled by the Australian breast cancer team Yukon Buddies). We were out practising on Schwatka Lake by the end of April.
A total of 11 women were interested in paddling, some who had never been in a canoe before. Our two coaches looked at each other. “They have a long way to go!” they said. But we did it!
We finished that first year under the allotted time of 100 hours. We were so proud of ourselves, and we knew we had started something. And here we are celebrating our 10th anniversary! At the end of 2009, there have been 35 women who have paddled the Yukon River Quest with Paddlers Abreast: 22 are breast cancer survivors, 12 are supporters. Sadly, we lost one member in 2003.
Certainly going through a potentially deadly disease makes you more appreciative of life, but it also made me a more critical person. I ask myself how is it our regulatory bodies, our corporations, our lawmakers, our politicians, allow cancer-causing carcinogenic materials to be used in common products that most people come in contact with everyday?
But although I ask the questions, I do have to admit that I continue to live a pretty stress free life in our beautiful Yukon, enjoying the access to the wilderness right out our front door or a short drive away, working at a job that I love and, this summer, enjoying the paddling with seven other great women. This is the sixth time that I have done the race. Each time presented different highs, different lows and different challenges, but always the end result was a positive experience.
So, paddles up, Paddlers Abreast.
And thank you to the Yukon News for publishing our stories.
Last of a series.