‘I walked through my darkest fears and came out the other side.’

It would be a routine mammogram, which would turn Annette Gibbons’ world upside down. The Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada would soon begin her breast cancer journey but she put her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital.

Annette’s breast cancer journey

 

There are pivotal moments in our lives, which stay with us forever; moments like the birth of a child or the death of a parent. For Annette Gibbons, it was the day she learned about her breast cancer diagnosis.

In July 2016, Annette, Associate Deputy Minister in Agriculture and Agrifood Canada, had a routine mammogram. When she was told that she had dense tissue, which made it difficult to read the mammogram, she wasn’t worried at all when she received a call to schedule another mammogram and ultrasound at The Ottawa Hospital. But that all changed when her radiologist, Dr. Susan Peddle, gently told her that she thought it was cancer.

Annette, visibly emotional, recalls that fateful day. “Just like that, my life changed and I began my journey.”

Her cancer journey would begin with chemotherapy under the watchful eye of medical oncologist and scientist Dr. Mark Clemons. “He specializes in the type of cancer I had and is very active in clinical trials and research on leading-edge treatments and practices.”

During these early days, Annette focussed solely on getting through the wear and tear of chemotherapy. She recalls that “it’s not anything you can truly prepare for, or understand, until you’re the patient.” “There was the depressing hair loss, the constant nausea, the searing bone pain and the mind-numbing fatigue. Despite all that, I still tried to keep my spirits up with exercise, a support group, and lots of old movies.”

She also put her complete trust in her medical team and was determined to stay positive. “I knew the stats for survivability were fairly good and I looked forward to resuming my ‘normal life’.”

Little did she know that the next steps – mastectomy and radiation – would be tougher than chemotherapy. The surgery itself and healing had gone well. She credits her amazing surgeon, Dr. Erin Cordeiro, for her compassion and incredible skill.

“She held my hand as I lay in the operating room preparing for the operation to begin.” – Annette Gibbons

“In the end,” Annette says with a little smile on her face, “she gave me, dare I say, the nicest, straightest surgery scar I have ever seen on anyone.”

Of course, Annette wouldn’t have the full picture of her cancer prognosis until pathology results came back on her tumour. It would be several weeks later when she would get the alarming call from Dr. Cordeiro. It was devastating news for Annette to absorb. “She told me that my tumour was much bigger than first thought. They had found cancer in many of the lymph nodes they removed. I was not expecting that, it was a huge blow.”

Annette Gibbons speaking at the President’s Breakfast for the Public Service in 2019.
Annette Gibbons addressing the President’s Breakfast for the Public Service in 2019.

As she tried to absorb this news, she sat down with Dr. Clemons as few days later. She was dealt another blow. “He gave it to me straight: because of the tumour size and number of lymph nodes affected, my risk of recurrence was high.”

That’s when Annette’s world came crumbling down. She recalls spiralling down into darkness. “It was very hard to crawl out of this place. But my medical team saw the signs and knew how to help me. My dedicated radiation oncologist, Dr. Jean-Michel Caudrelier, spotted my despair and referred me to the psychosocial oncology program. With the amazing help of Dr. Mamta Gautam, I walked through my deepest fears and came out the other side.”

Annette would complete her radiation treatment and then slowly reclaimed her life again. But as all cancer patients know, the fear of recurrence is her constant companion. “I don’t know if that will ever change. But I decided to make it my friend who reminds me to think not about dying, but the importance of living while I am alive,” said Annette.

She’s grateful to know the best medical professionals were right here in her hometown when she was diagnosed. As a self-proclaimed “frequent flyer at the hospital”, Annette is proud to say she’s reclaimed her life — including her return to work as a public servant. “I am myself again, and life is strangely somehow better than it was before.”

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