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Life Off-the-Grid

Breast Cancer Awareness Month Hits Too Close to Home

By Cam Mather

Michelle found a lump in her breast in August but since she had just turned 50 we were hoping it was a just a benign premenopausal lump. She called our doctor and her discovery set into motion a whole series of events that would rank up there with your worst nightmare. After the mammogram you hope for an all clear. Then you get the call back for a biopsy. Again you hope they’re just playing it safe. Then Michelle’s doctor called with the results and the real nightmare began.

Sorry for the profanity but WTF?!?! Why her? She did everything right in her efforts to avoid ill health. Didn’t smoke. Rarely drinks alcohol. Uses natural cleaning products and avoids harmful chemicals. Breastfed both of our daughters. Ate a low-fat plant-based diet for the last 25 years. Tried to eat organically as much as she could. Got lots of sleep and avoided stress. Sure there was some family history but you hope that by doing all of the right things you can avoid it. You can whine and moan and get really angry but it doesn’t help you to avoid the fact that your whole life has just radically changed. Suddenly your plans for the future seem a little out of focus.

For someone like Michelle who only ever saw her doctor for her annual checkups, it’s a bit of a shock to suddenly have multiple appointments for tests and consultations and procedures. Suddenly we are spending way too much time at hospitals and learning a whole new vocabulary. Terms like pathology, “clear margins” and “nodal involvement” – all things that I was blissfully unaware of prior to this.

But through it all we remind ourselves of just how much we have to be thankful for. I mentioned this in a previous blog a few weeks ago, but I shall always be indebted to Tommy Douglas and those who championed his often unpopular cause of universal healthcare here in Canada. As self-employed people earning very little money, the concept of having to come up with the funds to pay for all of this is truly frightening.

We are also grateful to all the women who have gone through this before Michelle and saw the need and advocated for the idea of a “Nurse Navigator.” This person is a specialist dedicated to women who are making their way through the breast cancer treatment system. They are there to answer your questions, provide support, coordinate information, re-schedule appointments that don’t work for you or just about anything else you need, they have the expertise and compassion to help you. What a fantastic luxury to have these nurse navigators available to us.

After our first meeting with Nurse Navigator Marguerite, who provided a thorough lesson on “Breast Cancer 101” for us, we knew we wanted two outcomes from Michelle’s surgery – “clear margins” meaning the surgeon took out the whole tumor and didn’t leave any behind, and no nodal involvement. If your lymph nodes have cancer in them it means that some of these little rogue bastard cells have left the breast and started to spread. The day of Michelle’s surgery was a brutally long, exhausting day, but it was day surgery. She was home that night to start the recovery process. We received a notice shortly after that we were to be back in 8 weeks to discuss the pathology report. Are you nuts? Wait that long for that kind of information?! One call to our Nurse Navigator and the appointment was rescheduled to less than 3 weeks after her surgery. I am so truly thankful to all those that went before us and knew the incredible value of having a patient advocate like this on our side.

Michelle has always been a very mellow person, but while we were sitting with the surgeon three weeks after her surgery, waiting for him to explain the pathology report to us, I noticed that Michelle’s legs were bouncing. I do this constantly but I’m an easily bored, partially ADD male who finds it hard to sit still. You know you’re dealing with an incredibly powerful foe when you see someone like Michelle picking up this bad habit. But the results were good. Clear margins. No nodal involvement. The tumor was positive for both estrogen and progesterone receptors and HER-2 negative which is a good thing in terms of “adjuvant” (post-surgery) treatment.  See, you get to learn a whole new language.

I’ll talk soon about our course of action, but for now, when our heads aren’t spinning, or we aren’t feeling like we are in some pit of despair, we are supremely thankful to live in Canada. I do not understand the backlash in the United States to Obama’s healthcare plan. I do know that Michelle and I have been running a small business for so many years it would be unlikely we could have afforded decent healthcare, if any at all. Here in Canada we had every medical procedure provided quickly and professionally, with no direct charge to us. From the diagnosis to surgery was about 4 weeks. This included the first meeting with the surgeon. The follow-up meeting with the surgeon was within 3 weeks of surgery. Then that same week we met with the radio oncologist (radiation) and then the following week, after a CAT Scan and bone scan, we met with the Medical Oncologist (Chemo doctor). How could anyone complain about this? Her surgery day was unbelievably great. Every single person we have encountered in the Canadian Healthcare system has been fantastic. Friendly, helpful, professional, compassionate, talented. I hoped I would never, ever need the system the way we have used it in the last several months. But when you need it, it is beyond comprehension how great the care is, without any direct cost to us.

A few blogs ago I talked about our purchase of the entire Sopranos series on DVD and explained that we were looking for a diversion. Michelle has found it really helpful to be able to zone out from time to time during this ordeal. When you have something like this going on in your life, you need to get away from it. It’s hard not to think about it so anything from books to movies that distract you are a welcome relief. The ironic thing for us is that at the same time we are wanting to zone out, we are in the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and basically cannot get away from it. It’s not just the “Runs to Find a Cure”, it’s on every newscast, in every newspaper and magazine. We bought our usual brand of mushrooms and the blue plastic tub they usually come in was pink this month. I am grateful that so many people who have been affected by breast cancer are so active this month, but when going through it you just want to forget about it. I look forward to an October in the future when we can look back and this will all be a distant memory.

Michelle’s P.S.  –  The other silver lining in this nightmare has been the response of our family, friends and acquaintances. Everyone has been so caring and compassionate and not hesitant to show their love. It has made such a difference!



  1. yassemin cohanim

    hey you guys,
    i’m a dinosaur when it comes to anything technical!, as haven’t been the best at keeping in touch, but i do want you to know that i do think of you, michelle lots. always wishing the best.

    all of you take care,
    hugs, yass

  2. Ken and Madeline Snider

    Sorry to hear of Michelle’s experience but hope everything continues to improve. We will pray and keep our fingers crossed that good health is coming your way and all will be well. Love Madeline and Ken

  3. jenjilks

    I have long thought that EVERYONE should have a patient navigator. Especially with seniors who may have family far away. All the best.

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