WHEN ORDINARY BECOMES EXTRAORDINARY
Submitted by Emma Lee Stewart
February 7th, 2011
I’m fortunate to have a little dog that needs my daily care and attention. Honey keeps me active. We are up early each morning and by early, I mean between 5:00 and 6:00. Just about the same time I used to rise to ready for work. Getting dressed takes probably 5 minutes, because it’s cold out there, and layers are needed, including long johns. Here in Atlantic Canada we are in the midst of a normal cold, snowy winter. But to my point – these early morning walks have turned into a time of quiet introspection for me. Honey enjoys the walks more than I, but little does she know that these jaunts through sleepy town Nova Scotia have allowed me to turn my attention inward in an attempt to make sense of, and put into its proper perspective, my metastatic breast cancer diagnosis.
I was initially diagnosed with breast cancer (ER/PR+) on December 21st 2006 and went through surgery (right mastectomy, ALND), 4 rounds AC chemotherapy, 16 radiation treatments and a 5 year prescript for Tamoxifen. I was then set free to rejoin the employed. I bathed in pink as I was adopted into the survivor ranks. I joined the dragon boat team, created The Reason for Hope Society (which to date has raised $16,000.00 for cancer related initiatives), took over team recruitment for the Pictou County Dragon Boat Society, became an advocate with Breast Cancer Network Nova Scotia and yes, wore pink. I shouted and cheered and walked as a proud survivor. It really wasn’t too long however before the feelings of unwellness that accompanied my original diagnosis began to subtly reappear. My doctor was not too alarmed. I had regular blood work and a CT scan, but nothing showed. Pain became more pronounced in my upper right side and I continued to protest. I was told that my doctor saw hundreds of people every week with that pain. Blood work in early ’10 showed vit D was completely deficient. My doctor then closed shop, leaving me doctor-less. Luckily, my original surgeon took over my care. I had an abdominal ultrasound late April and on May 17th it was confirmed that my original breast cancer had metastasized in my liver: “seeded”. Since then, mets have been found in my thoracic spine. I continue to experience brutal left sided headaches but so far nothing has been found. I will continue to protest.
Back to my early morning walks. One morning it was particularly quiet. A light dusting of snow had fallen over night, leaving the world beautiful and clean. I allowed Honey to romp and investigate the snow as she wished, as I contemplated my reason for being. I suddenly noticed her completely still, head cocked slightly to the right, ears alert. I looked up and there in front of us was a beautiful young deer, probably two years old. Now I described my town as sleepy town, and it is, but there are more than 9000 people living here and it is a “town”. This wonderful creature was in the middle of our town, just as scared as we were. Honey doesn’t stand a foot tall, but man was she ready. The chase was on. You can guess the outcome. Honey didn’t give up, and I allowed her to follow the deer tracks through the snow along MacKay Street, up the path by the junior high, past the soccer field, right onto Albert Street, and then left, starting up MacLean Street before I stopped her. That was far enough and my ice grippers had failed by that time. The deer escaped. But Honey’s actions solidified something in my mind. When my oncologist told me I would be receiving palliative treatment for an incurable disease I must have looked at him the way Honey faced that deer: at first terrified, but eventually resolved to fight the good fight.
So, here I am: 53 years young, stripped of career, on a fixed income, fighting for as much quality/quantity of life doctors and their prescriptions can give me, having been diagnosed with a disease that currently has no cure. I am feeling very fortunate to live in Canada, but I am not exactly living the dream I had as a little girl. Explaining this disease to family and friends is difficult. It’s a tough sell even to survivors. This organization (CBCN) can give you the Canadian stats on numbers of women who go on to develop the dastardly metastasis. Friends I have met in the US tell me that 25% of women there diagnosed with early stage breast cancer go on to join me and 150,000 are estimated to be living with it. I am told that treatments have come a long way, this disease is becoming known as a chronic disease and that “stable” is good, “ned” (no evidence of disease) even better and to be wished for. I am taking in all of these things and trying to be patient, listening and understanding with my heart of hearts. Truth is I spent a lot of time healthy never listening with my heart of hearts: I now find her a constant and reliable companion. I think I’m too young for this, but obviously this disease doesn’t care what I think. I still have dreams. I’m still curious. I’m still creative. I still want to contribute.
That morning with Honey was beautiful. It was cold, but the sky was clear and the sunrise was just offering a hint of itself. The star in the east was the most brilliant I think I have ever seen. The air was fresh and delicious and, despite everything else, I have to admit I felt pretty good out there sharing the experience with my faithful little gal. I pray for all who have received this diagnosis that you are able to put it in its place; that you suffer little; that you are surrounded by love and beautiful things. Selfishly I pray that my son and daughter are spared this; that I am able to write and sing for as long as I can; and that early morning walks continue to allow me to see and feel beauty in the ordinary, appreciating the extraordinary goodness that is in my life.
Emma Lee Stewart of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer on May 17th, 2010. She has been receiving palliative chemotherapy since July of 2010. A blog of her journey can be found at www.raisinghopeforemmalee.blogspot.com.