I thought long and hard before writing today’s column because I wasn’t sure I wanted to spread my bad news far and wide. But if my experience can help any other person facing a cancer diagnosis, it will be worth it. I am not going to let this cancer get the better of me.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 2, 2021.
OTTAWA—Three years ago, I joined a very elite group of Canadian women. At the ripe old age of 65, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer.
We all hear the numbers on cancer. But they don’t really mean much until it hits home personally.
My first diagnosis was not a major surprise. My mother suffered from breast cancer at the age of 56. She underwent a radical mastectomy, standard procedure in those days, and lived cancer-free for another 35 years. Not a bad track record to imitate.
So, after a surgical lumpectomy and radiation, I figured that was it. I did not need chemotherapy because the lymph node involvement was microscopic and detailed tumour analysis suggested the magic treatment formula excluded a full-body chemical assault.
I was told by doctors that there was a chance the cancer could come back elsewhere, but it was extremely unlikely it would return in the same breast where it first presented.
Once you have been diagnosed, the surveillance system of cancer patients is pretty amazing.
But COVID did require a cutback on cancer treatments so an ultrasound that was supposed to happen last year was delayed.
In my case, COVID may save my life. Because the ultrasound was so late, doctors decided to order a full MRI of my breast area, exposing minute breast changes that might have missed detection in an ultrasound.
The MRI exposed two masses, which could be simply necrotic scarring or cancer. Only a biopsy would tell the whole story.
Within three weeks, I was biopsied and both attending physicians said they thought the sample was not cancerous, so I went home feeling very relieved.
But their initial visual optimism was not borne out in the biopsy.
I ended up being diagnosed with one small cancerous mass, measuring in the millimetres, situated very close to the initial tumour.
I had done enough of my own research to know that a second tumour in the same breast can only be treated by full removal.
My first reaction was panic. I was not afraid of the mastectomy, but I certainly could not explain why the big C was back. I had followed all the rules, including post-surgical, estrogen-reducing medication.
And then I began scouring the internet for information on life expectancy. That freaked me out even more. A first-time breast cancer patient generally has an 85 per cent chance of survival beyond the benchmark five-year lapse. For a recurrent cancer, that drops to somewhere around 50 per cent.
Fifty per cent odds would be great at the casino, but life is not a casino, and the chance that I could be dead within the next five years is pretty hard to swallow.
But then my fight gene kicked in. I am not going to let this cancer get the better of me.
The fact that it was discovered at a very early stage is obviously operating in my favour. And I know the oncology team in our region is the best in the business.
I have no doubt that they will recommend the best treatment possible. My family is also fully supportive.
My wonderful husband, Austin, immediately went out and got his hair shaved in solidarity.
He came home to show off his locks and I burst into tears, telling him I do not want to be reminded every moment of my cancer.
With his near hairless head, I cannot run away from the diagnosis. But nor do I want to.
I thought long and hard before writing today’s column because I wasn’t sure I wanted to spread my bad news far and wide.
But if my experience can help any other person facing a cancer diagnosis, it will be worth it.
Just last week we mourned the loss of a beloved long-time Liberal organizer, Hamiltonian Marg Stewart. She was taken by an aggressive cancer that could only be treated by respite.
Marg was diagnosed too late to bring her considerable fight to the game.
But I am not. I plan to bring all my power to this battle.
Within weeks, I expect to undergo a mastectomy and whatever else the doctor orders. If chemotherapy is needed, I want as much as they can throw at me.
I would be lying if I said I was not scared. The uncertainty of cancer is probably the element that makes it one of modern medicine’s most dreaded diagnoses.
But there are more survivors today than ever before.
I fully intend to be one.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.