My mother, local artist Donna Parlee, was diagnosed with breast cancer February 2, 2015.
I remember the day because it was Imbolc, the pagan sabbat halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. Before she returned from her doctor’s appointment and told me she had cancer, I knew nothing about Imbolc—and not much about cancer.
Imbolc is an Old Irish word that means ‘in the belly’, or alternately ‘ewe’s milk’. The interpretation lends significance to the holiday as a celebration of fertility, reproduction and the young.
I thought this especially unfair, that my mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer on a day that celebrates women’s power to nourish with her body.
My mom had a very abrupt, disruptive cancer experience. She moved from appointment to appointment with decisions being made about her well-being, her body, and her life. She had no advocate, little support, and only the pithy information offered by her doctor to supplement what she researched on the internet.
I learned about Enliven, Muskoka’s centre for well-being in cancer, at the nurse practitioner’s office that year. From their website:
“Enliven provides proactive self-care services (programs, workshops, events) that support people living with cancer to navigate their journey in positive and productive ways, reducing the social isolation that comes with a cancer diagnosis.”
I immediately told my mom about this group, though she already had the information. She attended yoga classes with the late co-founder, Joanne McLean, and returned feeling grounded and seen. I was so very glad our community was home to this organization, but once my mom’s cancer was treated, she was no longer involved, and while I referred people to Enliven through my work at the women’s shelter, it wasn’t relevant in my personal life.
Until October 31, 2019.
I remember thinking I didn’t want to have to tell my mom that I have cancer. After her experience, I wanted to return home from my post-op appointment to tell her the biopsies the surgeon had taken came back clear. That everything was fine and the scare was behind me. But only four years after she told me she had cancer, I had to tell her the same thing.
Luckily, I knew about Enliven.
I had learned from other difficult experiences that community, support, feeling heard, and feeling helpful make all the difference when you’re going through something life-altering or traumatic. Whether it’s grief, addiction, loss, illness, or any other major event, having your circle around you can keep you above water. I’ve written about this many times in Huntsville Doppler and elsewhere—the importance of community cannot be understated. But…
I understood very quickly that I needed to talk to people who’ve gone through what I was experiencing. And ovarian cancer is different than breast cancer which is different than colon cancer. And having had cancer is different than having cancer. There are so many gradients of cancer it’s staggering, but the more people you talk to, the more you are upheld.
And, yes, there are downsides, reams of them. I’m thirty-three years old going through surgical menopause after a hysterectomy. I hadn’t shut the door on having children, but the decision was made for me to save my life. I wasn’t anti-menstruation—I miss my cycle. Cancer is an illness that can offer many options of treatment, sometimes too many—but none you would choose if ‘my previous good health’ was still one of them. It often feels like there are no good choices.
I have been told about so many cures for cancer that if I tried them all, I’d probably just end up with a really bad stomach ache and an exasperated oncologist. Often when people hear about my type of cancer, I learn about their friend/former roommate/random celebrity who died of the disease. And if encouragement to stay positive could actually act as an immunity, cancer would indeed be cured.
But please don’t misunderstand me—not one person who offered advice, sympathy, or positivity meant me any ill, and I accept it all with the love with which I know it was intended. One thing I trust about humanity: for the most part, we really do want to help.
That’s why I went to the Enliven Gala on February 4, five years and two days after my mother’s diagnosis and one week after my hysterectomy. I did a lot of resting, and friends new and old would sit with me. I felt like the world was moving a little too quickly around me, and I hovered on the verge of tears a couple times because of the intensity of the evening and my gratitude that this event exists, and maybe a bit from the pain.
A central grounding force throughout the evening was singer and songwriter Christina Hutt. Familiar songs made enticing and new by her rich, powerful voice kept me in the space between reminiscence and overwhelm. I wondered what drew her to performing at the event, and when I asked, she told me, “It has been my experience that music can be healing for both the listener and the performer.” Nothing could be more true—since my diagnosis, I’ve held music around myself like a well-worn quilt. She continued, “That night, I watched a community embrace one another. I saw a room filled with love and felt so proud as I sang for our cancer warriors.”
It’s such a vital thing: being supported by people who may not have experienced cancer themselves, but who know the need for community, for love, and offer it openheartedly.
At one point in the evening, after having been asked countless times how I am, and after countlessly recounting my cancer status, I mentioned that cancer is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.
I say that without knowing my outcome, without even knowing if it’s spread or how far. It could be bad. If it is, I have a lot to do in hopefully more time than I think. Actually, that’s the case for us all, whether we have cancer or not. I think we are here to experience being human, and to try to be helpful.
One in two people will get cancer in their lifetimes. I say congratulations to anyone I speak with one-on-one—if you haven’t had cancer already, and you’re in a room with me, you’re off the hook.
(Please don’t try to explain statistics to me in the comments; that was a joke.)
If you are the one-in-two who hasn’t had cancer (yet), I encourage you to listen. It’s a world I had never expected to step into, and one with lessons aplenty. You can’t cure cancer—it’s not even your responsibility to cure sadness. If someone you love has cancer, just be there, with them, even if it’s dark, even if it’s boring, even if they are reacting in a way you think you wouldn’t. Because you just don’t know how you would react—I didn’t either.
For me, cancer clarity has become a real thing. Your focus narrows. It becomes evident what is important and what is not. What is based in love, and what comes from fear. I had to decide what needed my dedicated attention and what only warranted brief observation. My energy expenditure became sacred—like it always should have been, but wasn’t, because I assumed it was infinite.
Enliven allows people to have what I’ve cultivated: a community. A circle of people who care, who’ve been there, who want to see change happen around this diagnosis. They know the tips and tricks, they rally around you, and they just let you feel.
After the rush and excitement of the gala, I reached out about being a member of the Enliven board. I wanted to participate, to help shape things, to be a part of something I so believed in! After answering my eager questions, the chair of Enliven, the effervescent Jackie Riley, softly inquired about my energy, my healing.
See? They get it, even when I don’t. Energy is sacred and finite, especially during this part of the journey. So for now, I will receive the gifts of Enliven and build up my capacity to give back. In my understanding, that’s what well-being is all about.
With that said, they are looking for volunteers.