There are so many things for me to be proud of when it comes to my kids. I think I have the best kids in the world! OK, so does every other mom, so this isn’t a unique perspective. Having said that, I can unbiasedly say that my kids are the best Terry Fox fundraisers in 2023! Imagine the pride I had when I received the following email this morning.
This year marks the 5th year my kids have been running as part of their school’s Terry Fox School Run, and every year, they have grown their fundraising efforts. The don’t simply rely on “mom” to spread the word via social media; they work hard at raising funds. They ask their friends’ parents at their extracurricular activities and they knock on doors for donations. In fact, they door knocked twice this year, hitting up hundreds of homes. Their efforts were noticed in the community. They had a visit from our Ward’s City Councillor to talk about their story, which he shared on his social media. They were also interviewed by CBC’s reporter Tom Ross, and their story aired on CBC News Calgary on September 22, 2023. Click here to listen to the segment.1
It’s hard to believe that in the month after the segment aired, the kids’ donations went from $10,000 to a whopping $21,100. I’m floored at how much they have collected this year.
I’m so grateful to still be here to watch my kids grow up. In 2018, Victoria asked her grand-parents to donate. In 2019, I remember how fearful Victoria was the first time we knocked on someone’s door. But she was enthusiastic; she did the knocking and I did the talking. Things started to change in 2020. Victoria did the knocking and some of the talking, with Nicolas and I standing by her side at the door. In 2021 with Nicolas started helping his big sister. He did the knocking and she did the talking. I was told to stay on the sidewalk and only to come if someone needed a tax receipt. Last year, Nicolas did the knocking and some of the talking, while Victoria ran off to the next house to do her “spiel”. 2023 was the year the kids partially split up, increasing on the numbers of doors they knocked on. They both did the knocking, they both did the talking, but at different houses. Still a little shy, Nicolas would sometimes give his big sister the stage and act as the “QR code provider.” I stayed back and only helped with income tax receipts.
As I sit here writing this post, I find myself smiling ear-to-ear. I’m lucky to be a “stage 4 breast cancer unicorn” (meaning I have outlived my life expectancy) as I am able to witness my kids, who are only 9 and 7, raise over $35,000 for cancer research so far. The magnitude of what they have done this year is beyond incredible. As Victoria so eloquently put it, “I hope that it goes smoothly like this every year.”2
Ross, T. (2023, September 22). Two Calgary kids have hit a huge milestone raising money for the Terry Fox Run this year [Radio broadcast]. CBC Calgary News ↩︎
Victoria Kwadrans, age 9, interviewed by Tom Ross, in a CBC Calgary News segment on September 22, 2023 ↩︎
I know it sounds strange that I would claim I have survival guilt, which is typically reserved to victims of a unplanned traumatic event such a car crash, a property fire, large-scale tragedies or crisis. Yet, I believe that’s what I am feeling.
I met a woman at a local breast cancer group for young women in Calgary on July 4, 2019 for group coffee meetup. Like me, she also was a young mom. Her daughter was 11 months old when I met her. She had felt a lump in 2017, but busy with life, and soon after a pregnancy and then an infant, she didn’t have time to follow up until she found it again around 7 months after she had her daughter. That is when our paths converged through the breast cancer “club”. She told me it was stage 2b.
Ten days ago, my friend died. It boggles my mind. Statistically speaking, she should have lived much longer than me. With what they consider a locally advanced stage breast cancer, with emphasis on “locally”, she should have had a 95.6% chance of surviving the next 5 years. Unfortunately, mine was stage 4 de novo, meaning it was terminal from the time of diagnosis. My chances were only 22% for that same period. This is my second friend in 3 years who were supposed to outlive me.
Aside from the stage of our disease, she and I had the same diagnosis: triple positive, with low HER2 expression. We had same treatments and compared notes almost weekly throughout our treatments, post-surgery and radiation. We were being treated by the same doctor and she was initially three weeks behind me. Eventually, she finished her treatments first because I had an anaphylactic reaction to the second type of chemo we received, so I had to pause for 6 weeks, which allowed me to get approval to get onto a different version of the drug, one made with a bio-synthetic base as opposed to Castor Oil, which was the ingredient I was actually allergic to. That’s when she caught up, and then finished her treatments and had her surgery 3 weeks ahead of me.
I understand that we each make our treatment choices. My friend had an underlying medical issue that required her, if she couldn’t live with the symptoms of that disease, to go back on her old medication, knowing they were contraindicated given their immune-suppressing nature. She started those treatments a few months after finishing her radiation treatments. She debated whether to restart the drugs knowing they were immunosuppressants and that it opened a door up for the cancer to grow again. Unfortunately, it came back for her. She immediately moved to her second and then last line of treatment. We shared the same bone mets radiation and orthopedic oncologists. We truly were “Bobbsey twins” when it came to our cancer diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, between her underlying medical issue and need for immunosuppressants while in treatment, and other treatment decisions she made, her cancer continued to spread while mine didn’t. Logically, these explain why she and I have had such different outcomes, I still feel guilty.
I think back to so many conversations we had. Did I do enough to try to convince her to listen to her doctor?
Why couldn’t I help her more?
Why do my kids get more time?
I can’t sleep, other times I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes lying still in bed and sometimes crying quietly, because I have outlived two of my local friends who were in earlier stages than me and didn’t make it.
Why am I a unicorn? What makes me different? What do I have in me that they didn’t?
Today is her funeral. I can’t make it today because I have my kids with me and I don’t want to upset them with the knowledge that another friend of mine just died. But I don’t know that I would have gone even if my children were with their dad and I was available. I don’t know that I could look into her husband or daughter’s eye and not want to vomit on them because it makes me sick to my stomach that I am here and she is not.
Selfish? Perhaps. I think saying it’s self-preservation is more accurate.
My friend L, I’m sorry I can’t be there for your family, in particular your daughter. Know that I am thinking of you. I hope you are in a better place where there are no demons haunting you as they did here. <3
Since restrictions have eased, I’ve been out more and have had the opportunity to meet some new people. When they learn about my cancer, several of these individuals have told me how sorry or awful they feel for me. Many of them were even fighting back tears as they said it. The thing is, I don’t feel sorry for myself. This statement usually surprises them.
Don’t get me wrong; when I say I don’t feel sorry for myself, it’s not to say I don’t feel anything or am numb to what I’m going through. I have simply have come to terms with my diagnosis and prognosis. As a result, I have chosen to live life as if it was my last day on this earth. It truly is a choice. I could choose to let it consume me, or I can choose to take advantage of every single day I have left. I have chosen the latter, and I live this out using three key approaches to life.
I’ve said goodbye to living in the past
Instead of focusing on the things I used to be able to do, I focus on the ones I can still do, have modified how I do it or new things I have learned to do.
I also process information differently than I used to. I take information and split it out the things within my control from those out of my control. For those out of my control, I simply “park” the information and move on. If it is something I can control, then I focus on what I can do about it. Many people get “scanxiety”. This is a phenomenon where individuals have very high anxiety and stress in the period of time (typically one to two weeks) after the scans are completed and when they meet with their oncologist gives them their results. Since I know there is nothing I can do in that time that would change the result of the scans, I simply keep myself busy and occupy my mind.
I set short-term and flexible goals for the short term
I’m a strategist and a planner. That was what I did for a living. So this is probably the hardest aspect of my philosophy for me to live by. I used to set annual goals for myself personally and professionally. Unfortunately planning is difficult with stage 4 cancer. The past 2.5 years has taught me is that I need to be cautious about planning too far into the future. Like many cancer patients, I live “scan-to-scan”. I therefore focus on setting myself goals for the upcoming 3 months.
Something I do to make me feel like I have some control over the cancer is to help fundraise or advocate for cancer patients through various organizations. As a Terry Fox Ambassador, I do guest appearances at schools to for the annual Terry Fox runs. It helps raise funds and educate children about cancer research. I have also been profiled as a patient in Alberta Cancer Foundation’s campaigns to highlight some of their programs I’ve benefited from to help them raise funds to maintain and grow their cancer programs. More recently, I’ve been talking with Dense Breasts Canada about what can be done to help women obtain earlier screening. There is more to come on this in a few months. Even though I can’t take the cancer out of me, I feel like I am able to find ways to contribute in other ways.
My biggest goal is focus on identifying memories I want to make with my children and boyfriend and focus my day-to-day life around those. For example, this winter, there wasn’t a way that my boyfriend and I could even contemplate taking a vacation together. There were too many challenges preventing us from it: COVID-19, parenting schedules, work, etc. thinking outside “the box”, we planned a weekend where we “brought the vacation to us”. We picked a weekend, selected four beach-themed movies to watch over the course of the Saturday, cooked tropical foods such as Jamaican jerk chicken, prepared a selection of “resort beverages” and listened to reggae and Latin-American music. We also cranked the heat up in the house, wore our bathing suits and lied on beach towels while watching TV. I even put on a bit of sunscreen to add scents to the experience. We had a blast on our “imaginary vacation”. While it definitely wasn’t the same as going away to the tropics, it allowed us to have fun while creating an unforgettable, fun and playful memory.
Who doesn’t have a bucket list these days? Mine might look a bit different than others in the sense that the one I have created has less “big ticket” items that require long lead times. I only add items that are realistic and feasible given my late-stage cancer and I don’t attach any timelines to any of the items. I love adding new ideas to my list and love being able to tick items off as opportunities arise. And that brings me to the third way I focus on living my life.
I live in the moment
I also look for ways to make things fun and feasible, even when circumstances are less than ideal. I think back to the day on which I had reservations to go to the Calaway Park (our local amusement park) earlier this season. It was a wet and miserable day, but my kids were eager to go and had been talking about it for a week. Instead of rebooking, we decided to make the best of it. We got fully decked out in rain gear for the occasion: rain pants, rain coats with hoods and rain boots. My son even took a pair of water goggles so he that he “wouldn’t miss anything”. We talked about all of the advantages on going on a rainy day: no line ups, no sweating, no need for sun screen, and best of all, we would not get wet on the “Timber Falls” log ride. This is by far my kids’ favourite ride. The kids and I had so much fun. They made a point of running through the splash park. I’m pretty sure the attendant was in disbelief when the kids asked if he could turn the water park on in the rain. We all ran through it fully clothed, screaming and laughing. Then we made it to Timber Falls. 2021 will definitely be the year etched in our minds as the year we did the ride 16 times. No, that isn’t a typo. We did the ride once when we got there and another 15 times in a row at the end of the day. And why not? There was no line up and my kids kept asking me to do it again. I sincerely hope they always remember me as the best mom ever for doing the ride 16 times with them in one day. And that is what I mean by being present. I only have one life, and I know that it will likely be shorter than most. It’s up to me to make the most of what I have left to live.
Living in the moment means I don’t let opportunities pass me by. When my boyfriend found out The Reklaws were playing in town, we didn’t hesitate to buy tickets for the show. It was on my “bucket list” and was a memory I wanted to create with him. So we jumped at the opportunity.
Looping back to the beginning, I mentioned that I made people’s eyes tear up when telling people my story. My boyfriend was there for one of those encounters. A few days later, we were talking about the reaction the people we met had and how strong they thought I was for having the outlook on life that I have. My boyfriend loves country music so told me to listen to Tim McGraw’s song “Live like you were dying” as he said that it encapsulates my vision of life. Tim’s McGraw’s song perfectly encapsulates how I am approaching my life living with stage 4, incurable breast cancer.
I hope this blog explains why I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. Instead, I’m hoping I can inspire people to appreciate life every single day, whether you are sick or not.
Despite my cancer, my life is full. I am happy, and I can sincerely tell you that I always find something special in every day that I live. I know that when I die, I will have lived life to the best of my ability, created memories with those who are the most important in my life and hopefully inspired others along the way.
How can I sum you up? It’s easy to think only about the things “that didn’t go well”. I’ll acknowledge them because they have contributed to my growth, however I will also list all the good you have brought me.
In the “didn’t go well in 2020” column:
Spinal radiation aimed at my cancer tumour in my spine
The addition of a palliative treatment, a bone modifier, to slow the progression of cancer in my bones
1.5 months of being bedridden in January and early-to-mid February, where I truly thought I would not have the energy to make it through another night and wake up to see the light of day again
The end of my marriage in early spring
Not seeing my children for ½ of the year
3 of my breast cancer friends were told their cancer had now metastasized, meaning it is Stage 4 and were also given an average life expectancy of 2-3 years
Lost my first friend to breast cancer since my diagnosis
At least 48 needle pokes
22 cancer treatment infusions
18 scans (MRIs, CT, bone scans, ultrasounds and x-rays
Having to ask my parents to use their vehicle as I needed transportation post-separation
Christmas was funded exclusively by my parents, my brother and Santa (of course)
Way too many hours spent crying
42 counselling sessions to deal with “my year”
In the “good 2020 brought me” column:
Enjoyed (almost) every single minute I was able to spend with my children. There might have been once or twice I locked myself in the bathroom to have a few minutes to myself. 😉
Was a Terry Fox ambassador who helped raise awareness about cancer research
A true moment of pride finding out that my daughter was Terry Fox’s 6th best fundraiser in the country for the Terry Fox School day
Woke up stronger every day and fully recovered from the worst effects of treatment by the summer
Continue to participate in 2 studies relating to exercise, nutrition and general wellbeing and their effects on cancer progression
Learned to accept my life as a single parent with Stage 4 cancer
Realized that the cancer doesn’t define who I am inside
Am in better shape this year than last
Made new friends
Strengthened existing friendships
Rekindled old friendships
Took every opportunity to socialize with permitted outdoor physical distancing activities or through video calls
Shared my cancer story as it relates to dealing with living with cancer during the COVID-19 pandemic, as part of Alberta Cancer Foundation’s “Albertans helping Albertans Fund” fundraising campaign
Found myself smiling and laughing so much more these past few months.
I was reminded that I have reasons to dream again
So, my dear 2020, I won’t lie. I am glad our relationship has come to an end even though it ended much better than it started. I will now bid you “Adieu !”
And to the incoming 2021 year, I look forward to kicking off your arrival, not bedridden as I was last year, but by celebrating it with my parents, brother and a few family friends via Zoom. I can’t remember the last time I celebrated New Year’s with my parents and brother… It must have been in the early 1990s.
While some of the people in this picture are already in 2021, the rest of us will be there shortly.
With that, I will say “Hello 2021! You have given me reason to dream again.”
COVID-19 is tough. COVID-19 + stage 4 cancer is even tougher. The people around me, from family, friends, acquaintances to complete strangers offering help, have made such a difference in my life.
I found it particularly difficult accepting help from people at the beginning of my cancer diagnosis. It took a lot of work with my therapist to understand that when I perceive myself to be a burden on others, isn’t. In fact, those who offer or accept to help me are doing so because they genuinely want to.
In a time where the top stories focus on how COVID-19 is devastating the world, we rarely hear the positive ones: stories like mine. The Alberta Cancer Foundation’s “Albertan helping Albertans” is focused on sharing such stories. Watch to find out how I feel even more connected with my community despite living through the most challenging time of my life.
From the bottom of my heart, thank you for helping me create more memories, more moments and more magic with my family.