Annette ringing the bell of hope following her final cancer treatment.
Annette ringing the bell of hope following her final cancer treatment.

In July 2016, Annette Gibbons had a routine mammogram. She didn’t expect that day would become a pivotal moment in her life and lead to a breast cancer diagnosis. This unexpected news sent her on a journey of treatment, surgery, and uncertainty that required she place her complete trust in her medical team at The Ottawa Hospital for both her physical and emotional well-being.

Following the mammogram, Annette was told that she had dense tissue, which made it difficult to read the results. She wasn’t worried at all when she received a call to schedule another mammogram and ultrasound. 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.”

The challenges of chemotherapy set in

Annette began chemotherapy treatment 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,” said Annette.

During these early days, she focused 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.”

Research making a difference

During her treatment, Annette participated in several clinical trials led by Dr. Clemons through his innovative REthinking Clinical Trials (REaCT) program. This program engages patients and their loved ones in research every step of the way, from generating ideas to setting priorities to designing studies and sharing results.

One of the studies that Annette participated in has now produced important results that are helping breast cancer patients not only in Ottawa, but around the world.

Trusting her medical team

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 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.”

Sobering news

Annette wouldn’t have the full picture of her cancer prognosis until pathology results came back on her tumour. Several weeks later she received alarming results from Dr. Cordeiro. It was devastating news. “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.”

As she tried to absorb this news, she sat down with Dr. Clemons a few days later and 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.”

Compassionate care during a dark time

That’s when Annette’s world came crumbling down. She recalls spiralling down into a dark place. “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 completed her radiation treatment and then slowly reclaimed her life. But as all cancer patients know, the fear of recurrence can be a 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 about 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. “I am myself again, and life is strangely somehow better than it was before.”

The Ottawa Hospital is a leading academic health, research, and learning hospital proudly affiliated with the University of Ottawa.