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Rites of Passage

A body fallen ill, a soul gone searching

By Barbara McIntyre

On Nov. 28, 1991, I learned what it is like to be told you have cancer. I had undergone emergency surgery, and in a follow-up call my surgeon told me that they had discovered a tumour in my colon.

 Specialists declared the tumour inoperable. In an effort to reverse that fact, they ordered chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The tumour did shrink, but not enough. Meanwhile, my husband heard of a surgeon in Toronto reputed to be one of the city’s best. Without hesitation, my oncologist agreed to refer me to him for a second opinion. Subsequent surgery only partially succeeded. Afterward, the surgeon told me I would almost certainly die from the residual tumour. His words did not surprise me. Further radiation had been ruled out, and chemotherapy would not kill all the remaining cancer cells. I went through another year of chemotherapy anyway.

Inevitably, I thought about dying, about whether I would see the youngest of my three children, in Grade 10 at the time, finish high school. Above all, thoughts of hurting my own child drove my determination to beat the disease that had invaded our lives.

I began to read and reread stories of people who had survived in spite of poor prognoses. Their stories validated my hope and inspired me to cling to it no matter how tenuous my grasp would become at times. I also began to read about the connection between mind and body and its possible effect on health. Intrigued, I eventually began to commute 300 km to Toronto to participate in The Healing Journey Program at Princess Margaret Hospital. During meditation and relaxation exercises, I struggled with a feeling that I wasn’t “doing it right.” But another part of me believed it just might tip the balance against the disease. So I persevered. It felt good to do something to help myself. Simultaneously, it taught me a healthier way to deal with the stresses of normal life.

I wish I could say that I felt a strong presence of God, but I cannot honestly say that I did. Motivated by the crisis of cancer, I searched for a God in whom I could believe. Eventually I began to feel closer to a loving God, but even then could not fully shake the doubt with which I have always struggled. Nevertheless, I prayed. I did not pray for a cure — I could not believe that a loving God would save my life while allowing others to die, a conviction reinforced when a longtime friend and United Church minister subsequently died from breast cancer. I prayed instead for the strength and wisdom that I, my family and my doctors needed to get through the ordeal, to make the right choices, to keep hope alive. I began to
feel strength I didn’t know I had. Where it came from, I
don’t know.

Remarkably, the tumour hasn’t grown since then. It is likely dead. No one really knows why. I do know this: it would not have happened without concerned and skilful doctors and the support of my family. My own self-help efforts, if nothing else, improved the quality of my life while I learned the hard lesson of making the best of today, rather than worrying about the number of tomorrows.

In spite of continuing problems, I enjoy a full and active life for which I am very thankful. Riding in the 1996 Great Ride ’N’ Stride for Cancer symbolized a return to health and a break from isolation.

I think I have changed since 1991. Considerable soul-searching brought me more in touch with who I am. I am more aware of how I choose to live and enjoy my life. I gained the self-confidence to share my story by speaking publicly and writing a book, Dare to Hope.

Although I cannot always control what happens to me, I can choose how I respond. During my illness I chose the most aggressive treatment that doctors would allow. For me — perhaps not for everyone — the path I chose was the right one, and would have been regardless of the outcome. It allowed me to live with some sense of purpose and hope, along with an increasing sense of wonder about very ordinary things and life itself.
Barbara McIntyre is a member of Dunlop United in Sarnia, Ont.
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