On August 26 of last year, with vacation on the happy horizon, we head for the meaningful sunshine of a country-side cottage. Craving a snack? No worries, as we say in France, and off we go in search of a small restaurant in Sainte-Agathe. It is around 2 p.m. – the creperie is closed, so we opt for the Italian restaurant across the street. We waited, waited and waited, and I even thought of leaving when my boyfriend’s pizza was finally served, with my calamari arriving soon after. We then head back to our summer landscape.
As the hours pass, I develop a stomach ache that keeps intensifying. By 4 a.m., my pain is so intense that we decide to go to the hospital. From experience, I thought I knew about the pains of nausea; I was about to learn it could be much worse, as the presence of any liquid, even my own saliva, had become intolerable.
It’s summer, the hospital emergency room is overflowing. We wait, wait and wait. By the time I am finally seen, at 11 a.m., my symptoms have become indescribable. I am quickly given morphine; thank you! I no longer feel like I am dying. The doctor thinks I need an urgent gallbladder operation, but to confirm this, I need to undergo a scan. At around 2 p.m., the scan is performed by a technician who has a good sense of humour and the experience is surprisingly pleasant. We then wait, wait and wait and at around 8 p.m., I learn the results: the food poisoning did not damage my digestive system, but a 4 to 6 cm tumor was found on my right ovary. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, my doctor contacted the oncology department of the CHUM so that I could be seen by them as quickly as possible. I was then able to continue on with my vacation without having to take care of securing an appointment at the CHUM. One month later, on September 27th, I met with a gynecologic oncology surgeon. Following my visit with this surgeon, I understand there is a serious possibility of a cancerous tumor and that we will know more only after the removal of the tumor and the entire reproductive system – uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. I had expected this type of urgent preventive intervention. I stayed calm because I didn’t want to think it was cancer until the oncologist confirmed it.
From that moment on, every single stage was like a whirlwind: operation for a hysterectomy on November 17th. At 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the 18th, I am still hospitalized when I learn that the tumor is cancerous, and the specific type would be identified later. However, the doctor tells me that he noticed blood in the catheter and my bladder when removing the tumor… I have never had blood in my urine and I never fall ill. Furthermore, I was showing none of the symptoms of ovarian cancer. They say that ovarian cancer is a “silent killer.” Indeed, when doing some research, I learn that 85% of diagnosed women die from ovarian cancer simply because it is detected too late: when symptoms are present, the cancer is already too advanced.
I reassure myself that, because I have no symptoms, therefore I am not part of that group. Regarding the operation: when the surgeon noticed blood in my bladder, he called in a specialist who used a camera to go in the bladder, and this is when she detected a cancerous tumour.
By then, I am astounded, the mysteries of randomness are saving my life: the food poisoning incident reveals a cancerous tumor on my ovary, the operation of the ovary reveals a tumor on the bladder that is also cancerous. (All of this, thanks to two very competent emergency doctors, and an equally competent specialist and surgeon.) Clearly, life can no longer be taken for granted and, YES, death is a reality. I am shocked: at 7:30 a.m., the day after the first surgery, I learn that I have two cancers.
After that, the whirlwind goes on. On December 30th, I am operated for bladder cancer, as scheduled by the female surgeon. The surgery is very successful and I can start local chemotherapy upon waking up in post-op. The treatment process continues to go well, especially because it’s predictable – no third cancer for me.
Every healthcare worker is simply remarkable: they are each vigilant, competent and comforting – what a team. I feel so lucky to live in Québec and to have ready access to all of this care.
I was operated on November 17th and December 30th. On January 6th, I received the first of six planned chemotherapy treatments. Up to now, I’ve responded well, partially because I was already physically fit – I see how it benefits me from how my body reacts. Still, I must admit that having two cancers happen in quick succession changed me. I have been leading a lifestyle that I is believed to guarantee longevity and health. Go figure! Life is so “tricky”.
My third chemo session is two days away. Everything is going great so far. I have energy and I sleep well (with sleeping pills). Decadron gives you lots of energy and consequently keeps you awake — a side effect that both surprised and affected me greatly at first. My doctor was able to help me manage this problem with medication. The hair loss makes me smile and it also gives me opportunities to share my story, and to discover other ways to be pretty. And Look Good Feel Better gave me tools and comforted me. I found LGFB through a friend who had cancer and underwent chemotherapy 10 years ago; she always spoke very highly of the organization, which convinced me. So far, I’ve taken one workshop on skin care and one on caps, hats and wigs. I really appreciated the presenters’ warm attitudes, their humour and the relevant information they provided for an experience that remains demanding and new for every one of us. I very much liked the atmosphere they created among us. This is such a priceless resource because it informs us and gives us back some power over what we are experiencing.
The impact of one’s change in appearance will vary in importance depending on age, the severity of the cancer, its prognosis, self-esteem and the resources available. With LGFB, we experience what it means to be accompanied, to avoid being alone, and to be better informed (which brings reassurance). Cancer strikes without warning but we can regain some control over what is happening. There is nothing we can do, we feel powerless and the stress is intense. By giving us helpful tools, LGFB makes a significant and therapeutic impact on our lives.
Learning about ways to deal with the effects of treatment on our physical appearance helps us take back some control. Once we’ve experienced total loss of control, we somehow get a better sense of our own power, and we regain our self-confidence. This is a significant, concrete achievement.
I realize how much we all need social solidarity: the medical team, my family, my friends and the community organizations. All human contact allows us to share with each other and help each other at times of great vulnerability. Nothing is more precious.
Virage Foundation contributes in this way by sharing so much helpful information and contacts — including LGFB. The better we are informed, the better we can react and regain the power of action and sharing. It is essential, especially in moments seemingly insurmountable.
Randomness is ubiquitous. And to counteract its destabilizing effects, it is crucial to have all the resources possible, to have the right support and to believe in ourselves in order to overcome the pitfalls. The web of life is beautiful and, to me, embracing a state of marvel is important.