By Joann Fleming
It was at a routine appointment with my gynecologist when I had a lump detected in a breast exam. I was 37 years old and a single mother. I was sent for a mammogram and an ultrasound. I remember that I wasn’t too concerned as there was not a lot of cancer in my family, only my dad with prostate cancer. But there were lots of people in the room, and I was told that there was something ‘suspicious’. I had the biopsy and was soon called by Dr. Roth, my gynecologist, to tell me that I had infiltrating ductal carcinoma, breast cancer.
I think, looking back, that learning and accepting this diagnosis is like going through the 5 stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. My oncologist, Dr. Mark Levine, was a huge help to me through this process with his compassion and care. I didn’t trust or like the idea of chemotherapy as my dad had died within 6 months despite being treated with chemotherapy. But, I put my trust in God and Dr. Levine and tried to keep positive. I had a left mastectomy and aggressive chemotherapy.
I tried to go about my life as normally as possible, caring for and loving my young son. I didn’t have much family or support, but I did the best I could, cooking meals in advance and trying to maintain my son’s normal schedule. We still did normal stuff, like skating in the winter.
I was offered genetic testing due to my very young age at breast cancer diagnosis and soon learned that I do have a hereditary form of breast cancer, caused by a BRCA2 gene mutation. This led me to have a left mastectomy to prevent new breast cancers and then breast reconstruction. I also had a full hysterectomy at age 39 due to my increased risk for ovarian cancer. I needed to be alive for my son and in fact, I was free and clear of cancer for 17 years.
In 2013, I had a cyst develop on my left breast which led to another biopsy and a diagnosis of recurrent breast cancer. I was thrown back into the whirlwind of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. This time was a bit tougher on me as I spent 7 days in the hospital when I developed neutropenia.
I am now cancer free again and have learned a lot. I have learned that everyone needs help. My second time through treatment, I relied more on people and know that this is not a sign of weakness. When I finished treatment, I felt like I could conquer the world!
Dr. Levine asked me to attend the BRIGHT RUN inaugural event in 2008 and I was honoured. I was picked up in a limosine and gave a speech. I was more than thrilled to do this, as the care that I received at the Juravinski Cancer Centre was, and is, beyond compare.
I haven’t always been able to attend the BRIGHT RUN, but I am always there in spirit. Through my job as a flight attendant with Air Canada, I request a donation through the employee giving program for 2 flights in North America to be used in the BRIGHT RUN Planes Trains and Automobiles Raffle each year. I am so proud to be able to contribute in this way and Air Canada has been incredibly supportive.
I know that my care was improved by the advances that have been made in research. The BRIGHT RUN is so important, as all of the money raised goes to fund local research projects. Look at me, I’m alive and well 18 years later thanks to research and the Juravinski Cancer Centre. For those women facing a new diagnosis, I would want them to know how important it is not to let fear take over – many of us have walked this road and survived, stronger than before!