Handling adversity, a note from the captain

As team captain for Paddlers Abreast, I get to plan the training schedule (until someone requests changes) and talk to the media when others aren't comfortable doing that.

As team captain for Paddlers Abreast, I get to plan the training schedule (until someone requests changes) and talk to the media when others aren’t comfortable doing that. It’s an honour to be part of this group, and after 10 years with it, I can say each has been special and unique.

Until I discovered that lump in my breast, my life seemed perfect.

I’d grown up on the prairies.

My parents owned a country general store in a farming community and we had the traditional two room school (Grades 1-8) across the road. I was always and outdoor kid – a tomboy. I loved activity, sport and adventure so I don’t think my family was surprised when I asked for cast iron cookware for graduation because I wanted to move north.

I always thought of the Yukon as the land of adventure. I studied Recreation in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and worked as a recreation director for a year before moving up.

It was everything I had dreamed of. I worked at Dunphy’s Sporting Goods in Whitehorse for awhile before heading off to look after programming the Faro Recreation Centre. I loved working in recreation and spent all of my free time hiking, skiing, camping, rock climbing and canoeing. I was always healthy and felt a real connection to nature. I had some great adventures over those early years in the Yukon. I had come to the Yukon with my high school sweetheart and we had two wonderful daughters, but that relationship ended and I spent nine years as a single mom.

Then, Blaine became part of our lives and the challenges of those years vanished.

My daughters adored him and our relationship started with a strong friendship, but we both knew it was going to be a lasting relationship.

As I said earlier, life seemed perfect.

Then, I happened on that small lump, about the size of a frozen pea in my left breast.

I always did self examination, but not on a rigid schedule and certainly not ever thinking I might find a lump. I only managed denial for a few days. I was obsessed with the lump and went to my doctor who also felt it and she set up an appointment for a biopsy. She was sure it was nothing, but we proceeded with the biopsy.

The procedure was done on my lunch break. And again, the surgeon said it didn’t feel like it was anything to worry about. It was close to the surface and easy to get at so they pretty much took out the lump for the biopsy.

The biopsy results shocked everyone.

In the back of my mind I knew it was something serious, something that was not supposed to be there. There was no family history of breast cancer and I was healthy. I’d never even got the flu or colds that were going around – how could I have cancer?

I never gave much thought to how this might impact Blaine. Our relationship was pretty new and this probably wasn’t something he signed on for, but he was completely supportive. I never felt losing a breast would change how he felt about me as a woman. Little did he know then that he would end up dragging a boat and van full of women around all spring/summer.

The surgeon and I discussed options.

The lump was very small and not aggressive, so a lumpectomy would have been quite possible. But that would mean leaving my family and support system to do radiation. I really just wanted it gone, so I opted for a full mastectomy.

I was aware of the mind/body connection and did not want to even think about cancer, or let my mind go anywhere but to think about a positive outcome.

It was really difficult to tell my daughters. I didn’t want them to be afraid, but it is hard to make cancer sound like it is something you should not worry about.

“Mom, I don’t want you to die,” said my youngest daughter Eliza. I don’t think there is anything more difficult to hear from your child.

Once over the shock, they were great and did many little special things for me.

I loved that my oldest daughter Danielle brought her teenage friends to the hospital to see me after surgery.

Blaine, a volunteer firefighter at the time, brought his colleagues and Sparky. It was probably the oddest assignment they ever had.

From the time I got the results to the time of surgery I don’t think I had a full night’s sleep and I couldn’t eat – I was almost nauseous thinking about cancer on my body.

I kept calling to see if there were any cancellations so that I could get in.

They finally ended up bumping someone with a hernia (sorry about that) so that my surgery could be squeezed in.

The surgery wasn’t that bad. I didn’t have much pain and the worst part was getting the drains out so that I could go home.

The surgery was done on Friday and I was home on Sunday morning. I could even go for a walk with our dog.

As part of surgery, the breast tissue is sent off for analysis. It took close to 10 days before I was told nothing else was discovered and I didn’t require additional treatment.

Several of my paddling mates tease me about having “easy cancer.”

Compared to many that’s true, but I don’t think “easy” and “cancer” can be used in the same sentence. The decisions are always difficult. I feel fortunate, though, that I could make my decisions without the barriers many women face.

I know many women make the choice of treatment that would not be their ideal choice in different life circumstances.

The days following surgery and being home healing were days that I’ll never forget.

I was completely overwhelmed with the caring and support I received. I had calls, cards and gifts delivered from family, friends, neighbours and acquaintances. You expect it from your family, but some of these people worked at my bank or where I bought groceries or had sat on a volunteer committee with me years earlier.

This was really my “ah-ha” from that whole experience. Relationships are very powerful and you have an opportunity to impact people’s lives everyday in the simplest and hopefully positive ways. All of those relationships you build are there to support you when you need it.

It was important to me to make some changes in my life.

I think it is natural to want to do something to influence what you have control of after being faced with something you do not have control of.

I didn’t have any really bad habits, but I opted to change my diet (I became a vegetarian) and I re-committed to fitness. My rationale went back to my childhood farming exposure where I remembered that you could make changes to the soil to make things grow or not grow.

I thought if cancer cells could grow in my body I needed to change the “soil” somehow. That may not make any sense to others, but it has worked for me for 12 years.

In early 2001 I got a call from Ava Christl. She’d heard about some teams of women breast cancer survivors in BC who were starting Dragon Boat Racing and looking at the research around upper body exercise and lymphodema. She had the idea of asking the Yukon River Quest organizers if we could enter a voyageur canoe in the race as a demonstration category since dragon boating is not very practical in the Yukon. She wondered if I’d be interested – of course I was. A physical challenge was far more intriguing than a support group could ever be for me.

The race organizers agreed to let us in and I was part of the first team and wow that was quite the adventure. Our goal was to finish the race in under 100 hours (which was the cutoff to be considered part of the race). Besides that I made them all promise we would at least be off the river a week later because I was getting married.

Paddlers Abreast has given me 10 years of tremendous satisfaction and I’m really proud to be part of this group. The women that have participated have all brought something special to the boat and I know it has been meaningful for them for their own reasons. It is very rewarding to see women embrace this challenge, get strong through our training and then feel the empowerment of completing something this physically challenging after facing a cancer diagnosis.

The years we have someone paddling “in support of” or “in memory of” are often the most difficult for me. I think it is because it forces me to think about the women going through such difficult struggles and the ones that were not as lucky as we were. I think about that a lot at this time of year. I think about Edith, who I convinced to get in the boat, I think about my mom who ended up with breast cancer at 75 years old (so there was a family history, I was just diagnosed first) and I think about Karen (of Karen’s Fund) because she was diagnosed the same week as I was. I had seen her around, but never really knew her – I survived, she didn’t.

I think about all of the people that see our boat and feel the connection to people they love and some that they’ve lost and I think about my daughters and granddaughter who I pray never have to deal with breast cancer.

I think about our decision to work with Werner and National Film Board on the River of Life DVD and the story of hope that we wanted to share.

That’s a lot to think about, but it’s a long way to Dawson.

Editor’s note: Over the coming weeks leading up to their run down the Yukon River, we’ll be running stories by Paddler’s Abreast members. This is the first in the series.