Monday, October 20, 2014

A Bulldog Spirit

BC's Sea to Sky Highway along Howe Sound is a magnificent and dramatic drive. On a day with clear blue skies allowing miles of visibility, my husband Tom and I headed out to experience the new Sea to Sky Gondola ride up Mount Habrich. 

From the top of the summit station you look over the ocean, surrounding mountain ranges and the city of Squamish. It's wildlife country up there and I was hoping to be high enough to watch the eagles soaring at their level. 

On the way up from Vancouver I read the latest email from my cousin who is facing a new cancer diagnosis. This is a different situation than her first diagnosis 13 years ago when surgery, chemo and radiation beat back her breast cancer. Now lung cancer has blindsided her with the knee buckling news that her life is in more immediate danger. She's a feisty woman, determined to be brave and to fight for her life. Anyone who breeds champion Old English Bulldogs, as she does, has to be feisty and stubborn to contend with 50 plus pounds of willful energy and slobbery affection. These big dogs are courageous, alert and cheerful. Qualities my cousin has in spades to carry her through the next months of treatments. 

Finally we arrived at the parking lot. I've been on gondola rides before and I was excited to go. But, news to me, waiting in line at the gondola entrance, my heart thumped hard and my legs wobbled. There was a debate going on inside of me, "to go or not to go?"  But there were two little kids with their wheelchair granny in front of us and they all moved into the gondola. The little girl waved at me and that did it. I got in. The gondola doors slid shut and with a jerk we lifted up.  The ground fell away along with my stomach and my bravery. As in the children's rhyme, "Can't go over it. Can't go under it. Can't go around it. Gotta go through it!"  There was no over, under or around possible for me. I had to go through it. Instinctively I fell into maternity breathing, huffing and puffing to try to relax. Half way up, the wind whistled through an open window and the capsule swayed and even stopped. At that moment I could have birthed an elephant with or without my breathing. 

Ten buttock clenching moments later I gratefully stepped off onto terra firma. It came to me that my cousin is facing her own heart pounding treatment ride to reach health. Perhaps it was the thinner air that made me think that if I could calm down, I could honour her upcoming struggle by walking over a suspension bridge 825 meters high. I had already accomplished the first step by surviving the trip to the summit lodge, so on to the bridge.  With a hand clutching the railing, I stepped on to it. Fifteen feet in, I retreated. One more try. This time with sweaty hands on both railings I set off again. No go. I backed up.  I don't like being defeated so looking straight ahead and not down, I set off for a third attempt. No go. This time I turned back and found a bench in the sun where I ravished a huge chocolate chip cookie.  I felt silly watching others skip along over the chasm even enjoying the bounce of the bridge. 

Silly? What is this all about? Smack yourself woman! Lots of us would never even try to go up a mountain—or climb a tall step ladder. That's their decision.  I got up the mountain. I didn't faint or throw up. And so what if I did?  We don't have to feel brave all the time under all circumstances.  It's ok to be scared even in the face of carefully controlled, safe heights or life threatening cancer battles. Sometimes we have to choose to do tough things to get what we want. For my cousin her decisions are of a different order than overcoming wobbly knees at a gondola ride. 

DD has chosen tough treatments in her fight to live her life in the way she wishes. Those of us who love her support her. I hope that every time her hand falls on the head of one of her "bullies" her bulldog sprit will lift and she will carry on. 

I hope she will visit me and we'll both ride the Sea to Sky gondola to the top. Maybe we will even cross the bridge together. Maybe we'll both have the bulldog spirit.

 Go cousin DD, go! 

P.S. Coming down is a lot easier than going up. 

Thursday, October 02, 2014

My First Run for the Cure in British Columbia : Part II

Thinking back to that inaugural run day in the Lower Mainland, so many firsts come to mind.  Our first volunteers were a group of CIBC employees who registered participants, gave out race bags and processed the money.  That small group subsequently convinced CIBC that the Run touched their hearts and was a worthy cause for their bank to support. CIBC's invaluable participation today is due to those initial enthusiastic volunteers. Running Room volunteers also worked with us, handing out run kits, donating proceeds from the sale of their specifically designed running gear and generally creating sanity on the day of the event. 

Before CIBC came on board as the title sponsor, the first Run title sponsor was Honda Canada. Honda not only donated draw prizes and the use of a spiffy car for a whole year, but also donated office space for the Foundation. For close to three years, everything we did was in that free space above the Honda showroom at the Richmond Auto Mall.  Our costs scraped the floor rather than heading north.  BC Tel donated a phone system.  Early corporate supporters were so important. 

Another first?  The Run happened right in the middle of the 1993 Federal election campaigns.  The sitting Prime Minister, our first woman to hold the title, was Kim Campbell.  She and other politicians, including Mary Collins, Minister of National Health and Welfare, sported the T-shirts and mingled with the crowd.  At the final medal ceremony and celebration, Campbell looked for the youngsters in the audience and spoke warmly and with great wit about the value of participation in the Run and in public service.  The writing was on the wall for her campaign, but her enthusiasm and directness held everyone spellbound.

This time last year, at the 2013 CIBC Run for the Cure, my daughter was very, very pregnant.  Now Connor Thomas Caldwell Morness has arrived, and he like all children, will need the love of his mom. Connor is a feisty little fellow. He’s also, shall we say “in training” for this weekend’s run (see the video posted below too!) although he also revels in whizzing along in a running stroller with his mom. 

Chelsea loves to see the breeze ruffling his hair and to hear his laughter the faster they go. These are very special moments to have with a loved one. And, due to the progress we have made since founding the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation here in BC, Connor will be able to share many special moments in the future with his Nana too. And who knows what spin offs will benefit other cancers in the future?

The Vancouver Run is always on or within a day or two of my birthday. In a personal celebration I walk over to the route early to witness the thousands of people arriving ready to warm up to rockin’ music. Every year seems like the first when I overhear the stories the runners and volunteers bring with them, each doing their bit to create a future without breast cancer.  

Every year I am flooded with gratitude just to be there.  

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

My First Run for the Cure in British Columbia: Part I

I was late and in a frenzy, looking for my matching shoe under my bed. Crouching on the floor, I beat back a crash of dust rhinos (I’m rather proud I know that collective noun), and lo and behold what did I discover but my first Run for the Cure T-shirt.  It was new in1993.  Now it's faded and a little stretched out of its original shape, like me, but still hanging together and useful. 

Sitting on the floor I had to laugh remembering my amateur attempts to be helpful at the first Run in the Lower Mainland.  I had loads of electrifying ideas but those who knew me best tactfully ignored most of my suggestions and put my talents to organizing balloons and cheering our volunteers on. Yes, someone blabbed that I was a high school cheerleader and I was thoroughly mocked.   But there was one brilliant request of mine I desperately wanted to be implemented.  I pleaded and begged on bended knee to have the very first route go past the BC Cancer Agency treatment centre and the BC Cancer Agency Research Centre. I hoped that patients, caregivers and researchers would look out of their windows and know that we were raising awareness and money to help them deal with their cancers. After all, we were and still are working for them. 

I know now that my brilliant request had way more heart than brains supporting it. However, acknowledging the spirit behind the idea, our team agreed and our first route was drawn up.  It's important to note that the BC Cancer Agency sits on the top of a very steep hill from where patients' windows look out onto panoramic views of the Vancouver cityscape, the ocean waters of English Bay and the North Shore mountains. 

Indeed, on that very first Run day, we had spectacular weather and the crowds took off in bright sunshine at the blast of the starter's gun.  There were runners and walkers including children and babies being pushed in strollers. It was cheerful chaos with dogs, a few wheelchairs, rollerbladers, men and women, old and young, doctors and nurses, experienced athletes and total novices trundling along together.  Each of those hearty souls, some even with shiny new running shoes, had to struggle up and down the hills for five kilometres.  Approaching the finish line, they were sweaty, panting, totally tuckered out, yet miraculously smiling at the cheers of the spectators at the finish line. Each and every person deserved a medal for sticking it out. Saner heads have ensured that that my ill-conceived route was never used again.  Phew!

At that first Run, for the first time we mounted a huge Wall of Hope. It was soon covered with photos, cards, notes and messages honouring survivors of the disease and remembering those who passed away.  Heart rending and joyful messages were posted side by side. Some people stood silently with heads bowed before the Wall.  Happy team photos were taken in front of it. 

We made the news on TV and in the papers. The speeches and stories of survivors and families were part of the evening reports. Breast cancer issues were coming out of the shadows. Awareness and money were raised. It was an encouraging success for breast cancer research support. We knew how to distribute the money that was raised wisely and transparently and a successful public profile was important as part of that process. 

Today, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure (as it’s now known) has come a long way.  On that sunny, first Run day my backpack held registration money and last minute donations while I stumbled along backwards up and down those wretched hills taking pictures of the runners and walkers.  Imagine the change from backpack to on line registration and donations, and from bulky cameras to cell phones which are now everywhere. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Someday's Here

I'll be 70 in two months, my husband is coming up to 71 and we have been married 47 years. Among other issues, we have, between the two of us, one pacemaker, four cataract removals, a hip replacement, a fractured ankle, one bladder lift and a dose of cancer. Too many of our friends are only memories and just recently my dear cousin told me that she was facing cancer, again, with only months to live.

Years ago we bought an old boat from a young man who was heading to New Zealand with his wife and child to be close to their families. They needed a lot of support. His wife was in the last few meters of an impossible race with breast cancer and she was stumbling badly. It was a terrible story and a sad goodbye to the pleasures of boating for him and his wife.  It was such a bittersweet situation. We were buying a boat and anticipating exploring BC waters with our own family. They needed to leave quickly for New Zealand and wanted a swift sale. The price they set was fair, everything was straightforward and the sale was a huge relief for them.

Those 19 years ago, little did we know, we were in for an adventure. Neither of us had boated in ocean waters. Growing up in Ontario and boating on small lakes meant we were used to water that tended to stay put. It didn't  move sideways and up and down and it didn't have BC's logs, deadheads, wild currents and hidden nasty rocks.  We didn't jump into West Coast boating blindly and we knew adventures needed preparation. The Canadian Power Squadron Course scared us silly, or rather scared us appropriately for rough, tidal Pacific waters.

Now it's time for a new adventure. However, there's one picky little point. We still have that old boat we bought 19 years ago. We aren't circus contortionists and are too creaky to be scampering all over its confined spaces.  The old boat should go to new owners and we want that new adventure.

I remember that after my breast cancer treatments, we gathered up the kids and took off for a European trip shoving aside an "interesting" financial situation that could have stalled us. It was a spontaneous adventure and we had a great time.

With over 140 years between me and my husband, we said, "What the hell, what are we waiting for? How much healthy living have we got? It's time for a new boat!"

We found one.

While outfitting our new (to us) boat and stripping the other for sale, that young family comes back to mind.  They are part of the tapestry of people I have met facing cancer, some of whom are alive and well, some of whom are not.

We do not intend to wait for someday to have our adventure. "Someday's Here."

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Bip Bip Bip - A Reprise.

When we, as self-described survivors, yak about the life we have had living with this cancer thing, we often refer to dancing at our children's wedding, the decisions we made to prioritize life, the good times and the tough times we've had to overcome. We sometimes have a subtle, lingering shadow of a fear that "it" might come back. Today becomes precious...

I tend to mark August as the time I was diagnosed, two decades ago. This year I think of Bip Bip Bip, the first blog post (January 2014) I ever made and how a pulsing heartbeat has changed my life. The ultrasound dancing blob has now become my 9 months old grandson, Connor.

I got to be a full time Nana when his Mom and Dad took a holiday. Connor is crawling and gaining speed. He has opinions. He is active and feisty. Me - I'm 69, not even close to my 20's when I had my children. The joy of caring for Con is fuelled by Tylenol and coffee. Weight lifting is replaced by baby lugging up and down stairs. Stretching is replaced by wrestling an anaconda into fancy diapers and loading the squirmer into the Jolly Jumper and then extracting him.

Creative crafts are replaced by trying out acceptable food combos, wiping up after rejection of said food combos,  then dealing with the resultant "trouser treasures." Calming two terrible terriers, hysterically happy with the high chair anarchist tossing cheerios with abandon is a funny exercise - in futility.

I do think evil thoughts about the Canadian banishment of baby walkers. American children seem happy to amuse themselves exploring their world. What Canadian government wit decided that our Canadian kids and parents aren't smart enough to use them? Their TQ (tiredness quotient) was always appreciated.

At the end of the day, post splashdown, I know that music took a back seat to listening for squalls, that my book club novel was replaced by Goodnight Moon and This Little Piggy Went to the Market played on wee toes and performed multiple times. I realize that I forgot to eat lunch and that I really need to use the bathroom. And, gloryosky - he's asleep!

I'm so glad I'm a survivor and I wouldn't want to have missed one moment of the most fun I've had in decades.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Who is Pat Foreman?

"Alice, have you ever had a mammogram?"

"What is that?" This mother of four (now five as she recently rescued a three day old baby from the streets) comes from a small village in Kenya. Her life in Nairobi as a pastor's wife and director of the school she and her husband built, in an off-the-grid area in the slums of Nairobi, keeps her out front as a community leader.

"Have you heard of breast screening?"

"Yes," she says, “a friend of mine told me about it a couple of years ago. Teams from NGOs come to a community and set up screening for the women for free. Actually it might have been for," her voice lowers," testing vaginally."

"Have you gone?"

"No. In Africa we believe we do not get the BIG diseases. These are white people's diseases because of the food you eat. We die from malaria or diseases like that.” Waving her hand from head to toe, Alice continues, "we do not worry so much about our bodies."

"Did you know that some say breast cancer has become the number two killer for African women?"

"Really, how long does it take? And how does it grow? Does everyone who gets it die?" I can read the fear in her eyes. She just got news yesterday that her 24 year old niece died of a brain tumour. They found it, but it was too late. She wonders how this young Kenyan woman could possibly have such a traumatic, disastrous disease.

Breast cancer is only barely in the consciousness of a few people in Africa. To be a woman here does not in any way mean you have any say in creating your own destiny. Advocacy is desperately needed, but as any NGO will attest, reaching past the thinking and long standing traditions and beliefs about health and women's value is no mean feat. Even HIV/AIDS screening is a tough sell, and it’s the most openly discussed health issue of the last few decades.

The most common remark I receive when people here in Africa look at my well lived life etched in the creases on my face, bounce in my step, and seemingly tireless energy is, 'how can you be so old yet so healthy?’ In Africa at 57, I am old. Statistically, I should have died 10-15 years earlier. Apart from God's grace, I have had excellent health care, great nutrition, and very light physical labour, if any. I am autonomous, not having to ask permission to go to the doctor. But how do you say that to someone who is younger, but looks much older, with stooped shoulders, the trials of poverty, hunger, death of loved ones, and limited access to competent medical care?

We need to teach women that their health, and therefore their lives, can make a difference in the world. If women stand together, things change, ending the slumber and long-standing often harmful beliefs, little by little. Now... if only the solution was that simple.

Next time you are invited to do something for women's issues or the education of girls in Africa, think about what that can mean. It’s a big challenge-- yes. Futile? No. Supporting another's human development is never futile.

P.S.--Cousin Judy, book my mammogram please! It has been three years since the last. When I think about everything we have in Canada to support our health. How can I not take the time when I return from Africa?

UPDATE: After returning to Vancouver from Africa, Pat had her mammogram and required a recall. She received a tomosynthesis exam and an ultrasound at BC Women’s Hospital and Health Centre. Happily, she's back to Africa in the fall with an all clear! Wouldn’t it be great if all women could have the same care, expertise, technology and result?  Furthermore, Pat would be delighted to have her story retold. Check out her Facebook page for more information about her African adventures. 

After a 30 year career in education, retiring as a middle school principal in inner city Toronto, Pat Foreman is following her childhood ambition of working in Africa. She has been invited to train teachers and community leaders to more effectively meet the needs of the most vulnerable children-- orphans living in extreme poverty. Pat spends several months yearly working with educators and administrators in three schools in the slums of Nairobi, two in Kenya, an orphanage in Uganda and an HIV education centre in Lesotho. Pat supports several orphaned children, fruit tree projects and mushroom farming. She’s also quick to share that there are many Africans doing the right thing for Africans.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Fruit Flies - A Rant.

I’ve had some nifty scams come my way. Some claiming to cure breast cancer, others claiming to diagnose cancer without any physical interventions: no breast self examination (BSE), no technology nor lab tests involved.

I’ve been handed baggies filled with greenery of some sort, dried herbs and small twigs. Each one was "natural" and guaranteed to cure cancer. Interestingly, each cure came with a dollar fee attached to it.

Once I was invited to speak to a group of women with one of our respected oncologists from the BC Cancer Agency. We were talking about knowing your body and the importance of early detection. The audience was intent as I told my story – they appeared young, had no family cancer, were in shape, etc.

The oncologist talked about treatments including radiation. Then I asked for questions. Instantly one hand shot up from the back row.

"Madam, why did you choose such an invasive diagnostic method?" (By the way, I see red flashing lights when  someone calls me "madam.") I replied that my cancer was discovered only by mammography and that I didn't consider it invasive. He then shouted, "Madam, are you aware that radiation burns holes in fruit fly wings?"

I was gobsmacked. What the heck did fruit flies have to do with this? I turned to the doctor. She jumped up and went over the purpose of mammography and its use of radiation. It didn't matter. The man had done his job only too well. No woman in that room would ever have a mammogram without burning fruit fly wings in her mind.

So who was he? Once the audience stampeded out of the room he informed me that thermography in bras was the way to find breast tumours and that, coincidentally, he sold the bras and the system, and would I support him? Bah!

I've also heard insidious, damaging misinformation that goes something like this. "It's all a conspiracy. There is a cure for cancer but the cancer industry and its minions are only interested in making money. It's not in their interest to have people cured. They're all in it. Sick and dying people mean dollars in their pockets. It's a scam."

People who genuinely believe this are charging collusion. For this to be true means that: family doctors,   mammography techs, radiologists, surgeons, nurses, oncologists, counsellors, lab techs, Canadian researchers, international researchers, medical journals, the international media, politicians, medical scientific panels and more are all in cahoots to deceive and lead people facing cancer to their avoidable deaths. Hogwash!

I think of one of our most esteemed researchers whose sister faced breast cancer as he worked on chemo rejection, trying to find out how to make chemo effective. I think of my own doctor who looked sick telling me that I had cancer. I think of the tears I have witnessed from doctors and medical staff who have treated a patient, valiantly, but lost that patient to the disease. I think of one woman in particular who said she would rather die than take any useless "poisonous" treatments from the medical "pirates." Sadly she did.

But mostly and happily, I think of the hundreds of people I have met who have been treated successfully and gone on with their lives post cancer.

We want cures for breast cancer, and all cancers, and we wish we had it yesterday and for everyone. We want unequivocally certified preventative measures for this disease. Until that happens the best way to save lives and bodies is to apply the knowledge we have now, while pushing science forward to find those preventions, treatments and cures. It's not magic. It will require bloody-minded determination by all of us - on all fronts.

Saturday, June 14, 2014


Confession time. I binge.

Binge watching that is.

Breaking Bad has me by the throat, and until I plough through to the bitter end I have no intention of stopping.

Image credit: AMC Networks

I know it's violent and a grisly spectacle of down and dirty evil. The characters are as nasty as they come. They cook meth, kill, lie, steal, cheat, and do it all in high gear. It's fascinating!

BB is one hell of a fast story, set in Albuquerque and the arid desert area of New Mexico. Walt,the devoted father of a teenage son, with a pregnant wife, teaches chemistry in a local high school. His life wasn't particularly interesting until he was diagnosed with advanced, inoperable lung cancer. The story hook - he couldn't pay for any treatments and his finances were in the red.

Over two years we gawk as Walt turns to crime, expertly cooking methamphetamine and selling it through one of his students. The plot is furiously fast, gripping, and shakes morality. It's the polar opposite of Downton Abbey.

Then my brain clicked in...BB could never take place in Canada. Here, once Walt was diagnosed, he would be in front of a doctor deciding on treatments. He wouldn't need to turn to crime as a financial plan, unless it took his fancy to try evil as a life style. No need to cook meth. No need to kill for money. No TV crime drama. What a bore.

PS. I love Downton Abbey too.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The BAWWW Award.

Dr. Ivo Olivotto practiced saving our lives at the British Columbia Cancer Agency for thirty five years. Over that time he saw thousands of patients and I was one of them, in 1991. I remember sitting in my one-size-fits-none paper gown in a chilly examination room waiting to hear my fate. When I heard a knock on the door, Dr. Olivotto asked if he could come in. What could I say - "No?" I wanted him to go away as much as I wanted him to come in but I had breast cancer and needed help.

23 years later I have come to appreciate the courage it took to knock on all those doors year after year and day after day. Each time his hand turned the door knob he brought his enormous expertise to treat cancers but he could never know for sure if it would be enough to rescue the woman on the other side of the door.

Dr. Olivotto has now moved on to other adventures in Calgary. The Agency send off party gathered his colleagues from around the province and Canada. Many were in tears as they testified to the powerful impact he had on their lives professionally and personally.

I shamelessly begged to be allowed on the program. Dr. Olivotto is an important part of our history and I couldn't let the opportunity pass to thank him on behalf of the CBCF, and patients. Two decades ago the CBCF in BC was a fledgling organization. Our offices were in our kitchens and basements, we had little money and we organized ourselves with a few volunteers. On this shaky foundation I boldly asked Dr. Olivotto if he would be our first Medical Advisor. After I got the question out there was an extended silence and a long, hard Ivo stare. Finally he said, "You aren't going away are you!" My knees were knocking and I could hardly believe my ears when
he agreed.

Over time Ivo opened important doors for us. We took merciless advantage of him by asking him to speak at our events. He arranged significant introductions for us and posed challenging and difficult questions as we evolved. He pitched in. At our first big fundraiser, The Run for the Cure, Ivo signed people up and walked with his mom whom he volunteered as a volunteer. He took a chance on us and I like to think that both he and the CBCF won the lottery.

At his professional send off, no one on the formal program represented his patients. It would have been impossible and inappropriate to contact the thousands of us. Regardless, I wanted to bring his patients to the event, at least symbolically, to let him hear once again how much his work has benefitted us. My quandary was how to thank some one whose shelves are already crammed with awards? How to thank a life saver? How to find something that would be a unique symbol of our gratitude and appreciation?

I thought of the energy it took to open all those examination doors, to direct students, to work with colleagues and to generate research here and internationally. Then I imagined a doorknob, but not an ordinary doorknob. It had to symbolize courage, compassion and style. I rummaged through antique and hardware stores throughout Vancouver . Finally I found a ruby red, faceted, glass doorknob that fit the bill. It was mounted on a solid, dark wooden chevron with a practical coat hook underneath the glass knob. It was the perfect BAWWW.

The BAWWW is bigger than the Oscars. No honour and no award can ever top it's inscription, "The Best Award in the Whole Wide World." I hope that every day when he hangs up his coat, Dr. Olivotto reads the inscription and knows how much he has been appreciated by so many. From all of us who have been on the other side of those doors, a heartfelt thank you Ivo.