Monday 17 June 2013


Zahra was a young woman in her mid-thirties when she came to Canada with her mother, sister and brother in 2007.
Zahra's family are Muslim, originally from Afghanistan but spent the 16 years prior to immigrating to Canada in Iran.
They came to Canada for a new life, hope for a brighter future.  They were very poor in Afghanistan and Iran.  There was little opportunity, especially for women.
Here is a photo of Zahra (her family's favourite one of her) laid against the pages of the Koran, the book of Zahra's Muslim religion and the book that Zahra read and prayed with daily.

The family was just beginning to find their feet when Zahra was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer.  She began aggressive chemotherapy.  This is where this writer comes in.  I met Zahra and her sister Salimeh in the cancer treatment centre waiting room in early 2009.  We struck up a conversation.  The two barely spoke English but were both smiling and had such agreeable dispositions.  I was drawn to them but I cannot say why.

We learned that Zahra and I shared the same Oncologist.  We also learned that we were both on long term treatment regimens.  Coincidently, our quarterly scans fell pretty close together with Zahra a month or so ahead of me.  We also often shared the same treatment day.  I felt close to Zahra and Salimeh. 

November 2009 came and it was a rare occasion where Salimeh was not by Zahra's side.  Zahra asked me in her broken English how much a funeral cost here?  I told her I didn't know.  I said the cost probably varies a lot depending on whether  you are cremated or not.  If not, you'd need to buy a casket and I hear those are expensive.  She said that in her religion, there is no cremation or casket, you are simply laid in the ground and buried.  I had never heard of this.  I told her I didn't know.  Zahra then said she was tired and was ready to die.  She said she prayed everyday to die but is still alive.  I told her then it was probably not her time to go.  She said she was thinking of stopping treatment, it made her tired and she wanted to die.
She looked tired but at the same time, at peace.  I told her that I was not ready to die, that I am going to keep fighting.  One of our names was called to go into the treatment room.  We said goodbye and we both knew it was forever.  I thought of Zahra so many times over the next year.  I looked for her in the treatment room.  I didn't really know how to spell her name so couldn't check the obituaries.  I believed Zahra was gone.

Fall 2010 arrives and one day, as I am leaving the treatment room, who do I run into in the waiting room?  Zahra and Salimeh!  I must of looked at Zahra as though I'd seen a ghost because she looked at me as though she'd seen a ghost.  We hugged and cried.  Salimeh was crying.  There were hugs and  tears all around.   I told her I thought she'd died.  She laughed and said she thought I'd died.  We giggled like school girls.  At that point I realized the waiting room was full, and all eyes were on us.   What were other people thinking I wondered?  Here we were laughing about each of us thinking the other were dead.  It made me think of 'a joke' that long term cancer patients often say to one another when they haven't crossed paths in awhile.  You say, 'You still here?!'  It's always funny because the phrase has double meaning - one is, 'you are still in treatment?!', the other is - 'you're still alive?!'.  It's only funny if you are a long term cancer patient though.
We hugged and said goodbye.  This time I thought I'd see her again.  She hadn't changed a bit. 

I didn't see Zahra after then and later I came to learn that in November of 2011, Zahra had died.  I was overwhelmed by emotion.  Even though in 2009 Zahra herself told me she was ready to die, prayed to die, and I knew in my heart she was at peace, I felt so sad for her sister, her mother and her brother.  They came to Canada with such hopes and dreams for a new life but instead faced sickness and death.  I remember when I first met Zahra, she was in English school but soon dropped out when her sickness made her unable to carry on.  Hopes dashed, a young woman's life snuffed out. 

Goodbye sweet, smiling Zahra. 

I was overcome with grief - for the future Zahra would not have, for her sister who was by her side every step of the way, for her mother who had lost her husband only a few years before and now a child, and for her brother, a young man in a new country trying to find his way.  It was as though a cloud of darkness had settled over me.

Stay tuned for our upcoming post, 'Coping with Grief'.

Monday 3 June 2013


There has been much ado in the media recently over Angelina Jolie and her discovery that she carries the BRCA gene, making her more likely than not to develop breast cancer at some time in her life.
As a result, Angelina opted for a double mastectomy with reconstruction, to dramatically lower her odds of developing breast cancer down the road. 

Angelina ostensibly underwent the genetic testing to determine if she carried the gene as her mother succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2007, and we have now learned of the death of her aunt (her mother’s sister), from breast cancer just weeks ago - and she carried the gene.
The BRCA gene makes one at high risk for both breast and ovarian cancer.

Angelina has been portrayed in the media with countless faces – for her beauty, her acting skills, her devotion to family, her relationship with Brad Pitt.  There has been much criticism (jealousy?) along the way of her weight, her lips, her legs, her beauty, her acting skills, her devotion to family, her relationship with Brad Pitt. 
She has never been portrayed as an out and out Heroine, until now though.  She is now being heralded over her bravery of getting the genetic testing done; digesting the results; making the tough decision on what steps to take to help ensure she lives long and prospers without cancer; undergoing the double mastectomy pre-op procedures; the actual surgery; the post-surgical drains and recovery process.  She is reportedly looking into the removal of her ovaries to eradicate the odds of her developing ovarian cancer.

Wow, what a lady!  What an unusual and outstanding woman……..or is she?
Here at Cancer Crossing, five women we know, immediately come to mind.  Two of the women tested positive for the BRCA gene (after developing breast cancer already) and had the double mastectomy surgery with reconstruction.
One has recently been diagnosed with the BRCA gene (after developing ovarian cancer) and is on the surgical consultation list for double mastectomy/reconstruction.
Two other women we know have opted for the double mastectomy with reconstruction not because of the BRCA gene, but because they had developed breast cancer in one breast and facing a single mastectomy, made the decision to opt for the double mastectomy as it gave them a greater sense of comfort they would not have to deal with breast cancer again.

Has the media reported on the Heroism of any of these women?  No.
These women underwent, or are undergoing these procedures in Winnipeg without the enormous financial resources Angelina has available to assist her through this difficult time.  Angelina has the resources to allow for the time she required to be away from work.  She has the resources to assist with child care.  She has the resources for psychiatric help should she need it through this challenging time.  Angelina has the resources for immediate action on her case. 

These are resources our five women did not/do not, necessarily have available while undergoing their double mastectomies and reconstruction.   Our women had to get cancer to discover the gene or to make the double mastectomy/reconstruction decision for their own peace of mind.  These women, and any and all cancer patients dealing with their own unique cancer experience, are the patients we at Cancer Crossing are looking to create a fund to support. 
Is Angelina a Heroine?  Yes, because she is able to raise public awareness on the BRCA gene and the double mastectomy/reconstruction procedure with lightning speed, which can only be a good thing. 
Here at Cancer Crossing though, we think the real Heroine’s in this story are our five ladies, who dealt with/are dealing with, all that Angelina has and more.  Where are these women?  Obviously if we know five, there are undoubtedly thousands or tens of thousands of these ladies.  They are in your workplace, at social events, at the grocery store and at the shopping mall ticking off the items on their ‘to do’ list because life carries on, and the ‘inbox’ is always full.  They are hard to detect because they quietly stare cancer in the eye and fight with an intimate circle of supporters.  No paparazzi, no fanfare, just Bravery.