Zoomer Report

With breast cancer behind her, Libby faces another challenge with her characteristic humour and courage.

 BY: LIBBY ZNAIMER

Two years ago last month, I was starting chemotherapy. I had already gone through two operations for breast cancer. I knew the agony of learning that my cancer was missed on a mammogram and the joy of discovering that it had not spread.

I had yet to lose my hair, to embrace my wigs and to learn how to live my life with “the red devil” coursing through my veins. I still faced weeks of radiation therapy, more surgery and the most difficult decision of my life — whether to have both of my breasts removed prophylactically, as a preventative measure, because I have one of the breast cancer genes. That means I’m at risk of getting cancer again.

I was in a place I call “Cancerland.” The first thing you have to do when you enter Cancerland is take in a huge amount of complex medical information. And you have to turn it around quickly to make life-and-death decisions about your treatment. In those early days, I remember coming home after appointments feeling exhausted, as though I had been whipped by giant waves of facts and figures.

Two years later, all of that trauma was just a memory. I rarely worried about getting cancer again — that’s how I knew I made the right decisions about treatment. After my initial operation, I agonized for months about whether to have a bilateral mastectomy. A quarter of the women who carry the BRCA genes — which make some women more susceptible to developing breast and other types of cancer — have both breasts removed. As do some non-carriers who want to be sure their cancer won’t recur. It’s the right choice for those who worry about cancer constantly. I have friends who say they couldn’t face all the extra post-cancer screening, and the radical surgery allows them to sleep at night.

I’m not wired that way. I feel no stress when I report for mammograms every six months, a yearly MRI and regular appointments with my oncologist. I’m totally back to normal in those waiting rooms, looking at my watch, wondering when I can get back to work.  So I’m happy I kept my breasts.

I think about breast cancer when I am writing or speaking about it, or working for a breast cancer cause. I sit on the breast cancer cabinet of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. We’re working on a new $27-million Sunnybrook Breast Cancer Research Centre, which will develop a rapid-response program to take women from screening to diagnosis in a matter of days. According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Network’s 2008 report card on breast cancer wait times in Canada, British Columbia’s fast-track program has the quickest turnaround in the country at 2.9 weeks.

Wait times vary from province to province. There are no national benchmarks for surgery and chemotherapy. Who gets the fastest care? According to the report card, women in British Columbia and Quebec are best served. We all deserve the same.

If you asked me how cancer changed me these last two years, I’d say the first change was on the outside. I ditched the blond hair I’ve had all my life and took inspiration for my new look from my favourite short auburn wig. And I really feel that the change on the outside mirrors those on the inside. My hip, fun hair reflects the way I feel.

Having cancer was the most vivid experience of my life. Living through it made me realize that it would be great to also experience the good things in life in the same vivid, fulsome way. Now I’m grateful for all the good things. Being happy comes naturally and I really enjoy my life.

I’ve just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Unlike breast cancer, which is practically an epidemic, the numbers are smaller. And it only afflicts a tiny percentage of the tiny percentage of people who carry my genetic mutation. I am very hopeful. And I’m still trying to enjoy each day as much as I can. Wish me luck.

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