A CANCER JOURNEY
A cancer journey by the numbers
Published: February 2023
Numbers play an important role in our lives. They mark special occasions, important meetings, and sometimes they’re symbolic.
In 1970, Tanya O’Brien lost her aunt Elizabeth to breast cancer — Tanya was just shy of her first birthday. While she was too young to know her aunt, she has a picture of the two of them together. When she looks at that photo, two numbers come to mind — one and seven. “I think of my aunt as number one and myself as number seven. On March 5, 2013, I became the seventh person in my family diagnosed with breast cancer,” explains Tanya.
“Actually hearing you have cancer is like watching yourself in a bad B-movie — nothing feels real. Everything is in slow motion except for your brain which races around, and everything suddenly becomes a question.”– Tanya O’Brien
Because of this family history, cancer is a disease Tanya has feared much of her adult life. By the time she was in her early 40s, the elementary school teacher had already seen family member after family member face the disease. “My fear would stop me in my tracks. Pink ribbons used to make me cringe. My lumpy breasts were a constant source of drama,” says Tanya.
Then, what she had feared most became reality. In 2013, Tanya was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news came after a radiologist noticed something new during an examination and a biopsy was ordered. “Actually hearing you have cancer is like watching yourself in a bad B-movie — nothing feels real. Everything is in slow motion except for your brain which races around, and everything suddenly becomes a question. Will I die? What will happen to my family?”
Facing cancer head on
Next, Tanya turned to The Ottawa Hospital’s Breast Health Centre (BHC) where over the course of 16 months her care team became household names — a team she says provided her with smiles, explanations, advice, hugs, and assurances along her cancer journey. “They redefined ‘hero’ for me. One step at a time, with an army of people behind me, I found myself being able to fight cancer and confront the fear that had controlled me long before my diagnosis,” says Tanya.
In 2018, the new Rose Ages BHC opened its doors to patients, thanks to an ambitious $14-million fundraising campaign. The centre houses an impressive suite of technologies that are among the latest and most comprehensive in Canada. The BHC allows patients to be closer to the specialists involved in their care, from before diagnosis to after treatment, and beyond. This means more patients can be treated with therapies that are tailored to their unique circumstances.
“They redefined ‘hero’ for me. One step at a time, with a legion of people behind me, I found myself being able to fight cancer and confront the fear that had controlled me long before my diagnosis.”– Tanya O’Brien
Access to the most advanced and compassionate cancer care helped ease Tanya’s fears along the way. Her journey included a double mastectomy, reconstruction surgery, chemotherapy, and medication. “Without Dr. Shailendra Verma and Dr. John Lorimer I would not have made it through the first few days of this process. They explained things so clearly and encouraged me that I could do this. They were calm and clear. My oncologist, Dr. Paul Wheatley-Price, along with Drs. Kirsty Boyd and Simon Frank were with me throughout my journey.”
Not unlike other cancer patients, Tanya’s biggest fear was chemotherapy. She remembers that first day of treatment and how the sunshine was beaming through the window — which seemed to reflect the attitude of the staff who were caring for patients just like her. And then came a very special moment, on August 14, 2014 — Tanya rang the bell to mark her last chemo treatment. “I was at the other end of the tunnel. My reconstruction still amazes me. Except for two small lines, I look exactly as I did before. The only difference now is that I can look at myself with confidence knowing that I am well.”
And now back to those numbers, the most recent special number to Tanya is 10. This year marks the 10-year anniversary of being cancer free — a milestone she is deeply grateful for and one that she not only celebrates, but that marks a time of remembering those she’s lost, like her aunt Elizabeth.
Tanya is grateful for each day she’s been given and those who helped her each step of the way. “I’ve been given a chance to live the rest of my life without fear. I have an understanding that healing can happen with an idea, research, medicine, surgery, faith, and more importantly, with the right people. I owe The Ottawa Hospital my life, and there are no words to thank adequately everyone there for what they have done.”
The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.