Mind & Spirit

Personal essay: Finding courage to conquer Hodgkin's disease

By: Michelle Rickaby

Author: Canadian Living

Mind & Spirit

Personal essay: Finding courage to conquer Hodgkin's disease

By: Michelle Rickaby

This story was originally titled "My Symbol of Hope" in the April 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

My two little girls, Megan, 1, and Melissa, 4, are dressed in their pretty pink dresses. They're standing in a boat with their father, somberly clutching his hands. The boat is sailing in a vast expanse of water. It stops, and the girls slowly open a large urn, reach in, and take out a handful of ashes to sprinkle over the water. They are all sobbing.

I wake up in a cold sweat, terrified.

"No!" I cry out. This can't be happening. I'm too young to die.

And then it comes to me – a vision of a single daffodil. That and my brother's memory give me the strength to carry on fighting.

Back in the 1980s, my life was pretty good. Gord and I had been married for about eight years, had two beautiful daughters, and were living in a lovely home in Abbotsford, B.C.

Stress begins to mount
But things started to spiral downward when Gord was laid off from a series of jobs, the last one at BC Hydro.

Money was tight, so to help out, I got a part-time evening job as a security guard in a department store. I would get up with the kids in the morning and try to keep life normal throughout the day. Then I would make dinner and go to work in the evening. I wasn't coping very well with the stress; I lost weight, and didn't sleep or eat much.

Then I started to itch. It felt as if my skin was crawling with bugs. I attributed it to the stress of trying to make ends meet. One day, I felt a lump about the size of a quarter on my neck, just above my collarbone.

I wanted to believe it was only a swollen gland, but deep down I was terrified that it was something more serious. My mom insisted I see my doctor right away.

Family link to lymphoma
We had reason to worry: Mom had lost her only son – and I my only brother – to Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system.

Jim was a tall, handsome man, recently married and working as a prison guard. He had made up his mind to quit that job to pursue his true passion – landscaping – when he came down with a strange cough. The cough worsened and Jim was eventually rushed to the hospital. I'll never forget the phone call from my grandma on June 28, 1981. She called to tell me that Jim had been diagnosed with cancer and was gravely ill. I didn't know much about cancer at the time except that there was a young man with one leg who had been running across Canada to raise money for cancer research until he had to stop when his cancer returned. My grandma said, "Didn't you hear the news today? Terry Fox died this morning."

Jim died, too, on May 5, 1982. Margaret, his wife, became a widow at the age of 27.

That history made my visit to my family doctor especially frightening. My fears grew when the doctor sent me right away to see a surgeon.

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As the surgeon approached the examining table, he said, smiling, "Let's have a look at this lump." As he was checking my neck, though, his smile disappeared. He obviously felt something he didn't like. He immediately ordered a biopsy.

When I sat in my family doctor's office to hear the biopsy results, he was directly across from me. Without looking at me, he said, "There are good lumps and bad lumps; you have a bad lump."

People were quick to tell me that the survival rate for Hodgkin's was relatively good. But in our family, the track record with this disease was anything but good.

Nobody knew what to say to me. People smiled, but I knew what they were thinking: Will she die as quickly as her brother? What's going to happen to her children?

The first Sunday after my diagnosis, my mom and I decided to go to church. It was during a cancer fund-raising campaign, and on the cover of the program was a picture a daffodil, along with words describing how we miss our loved ones who didn't make it. That touched a chord and made me cry. And when the pastor introduced communion, both my mom and I started to bawl our eyes out – she cried because she didn't want to lose another child, and I cried because I wasn't ready to die.

Beating cancer through visualization
When the pastor learned of my diagnosis, he gave me a copy of Getting Well Again by Dr. O. Carl Simonton. The book discusses using visualization techniques to conquer cancer. I started practising some of these techniques. In my mind, I would send in little Pac-men to gobble up the cancer and create healthy cells in their place. These exercises gave me the strength to face the following days and months.

After a battery of tests – blood work, X-rays, a bone marrow biopsy and a lymphangiogram (where dye is injected into the lymph system) – I was admitted to the hospital for a procedure to determine the extent of the Hodgkin's and involvement of the organs. After the test results came back, I was told that I needed 40 radiation treatments. According to my doctor, I would lose most of my hair; experience burns inside my throat and under my arms; lose my appetite; have a dry mouth; have problems with my bowels; probably become sterile; lose weight and strength; and possibly lose some lung function. I would also have to cope with the daily commute to and from Vancouver for treatments.

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At home, the money troubles continued. I was unable to work, and Gord still couldn't find a job. Our relationship was further strained because we didn't know whether or not I would survive.

A homemaker came in every day to help care for the kids while I went for treatment and Gord looked for work. One homemaker in particular was a huge help. She would make me sit in a comfortable chair when I got home from my treatment and cover me in a blanket. She made me a sandwich or an Ensure shake, and made sure I took some food in. I had wasted away to 104 pounds – not much for someone who is five feet, five inches tall. I had also lost all the hair from the back of my head.

It was during this bleak period that I had the dream that would literally serve as my "wake-up call." I promised myself right then that when I got better I would not waste any time; I would pursue only those things that were fulfilling and healthy.

I also vowed to help others, as a payback for the kindness and assistance I received during my illness. I enrolled in a social work evening class at the local college even though I was frail and withdrawn. I felt I had to do something.

Gradually, I got better. But every spring was a reminder of my diagnosis, surgery and treatment. And although I was physically better, I still didn't feel better mentally.

Struggling to put cancer in the past
On Easter weekend four years later, I was having a particularly difficult time. I felt stuck, unable to get past being a cancer survivor. I spent a happy few days colouring paper bunnies and Easter eggs with my kids, but there was something missing. I woke up early Easter Sunday when the house was still quiet and took the dog for a walk. We now lived in a new subdivision of Chilliwack, B.C., full of empty fields. We walked through the mud and looked at the new grass poking up. We climbed a small hill and startled a duck that quacked loudly and flew off.

As we walked, I went over the same things in my mind, trying, once again, to make sense of it all. Yes, I had beaten cancer and was still alive, but why had I suffered and survived when my brother hadn't? And how long would I continue to survive? Every lump, bump, bruise or cough terrified me because it might be the beginning of a recurrence.

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My dog and I entered the woods and started down a trail of fallen trees. Brambles of blackberries and tall old grasses poked up everywhere. We climbed over stumps and under branches. We slid down a muddy hill and climbed up the next one.

We were getting closer to home and I still didn't have the answers I was looking for. Those familiar feelings of terror and isolation came rushing back. I knew I would have to put on a happy face again for my family.

A clear symbol of hope
We turned another corner and there it was, at the end of the trail in a clearing – a single beautiful yellow daffodil. I felt a warm feeling wash all over me. It was a symbol of hope – the same symbol that was on the church bulletin on the weekend I was diagnosed with the cancer I thought I would never beat. I knew it was the sign I was looking for.

I called my dog and we ran the rest of the way home. I hid the painted eggs around the house and went upstairs to wake the girls. They got up giggling and grabbed their baskets. I had an especially warm glow in my heart that no one else needed to know about. They wouldn't understand.

That beautiful flower was a signal to change. My first marriage couldn't withstand all of the struggles and we divorced in 2002 after 23 years of marriage. I have since remarried and have a wonderful second husband (Darren) and two stepsons (Curtis and Spencer), in addition to my two beautiful daughters.

After completing my social work diploma, I earned my bachelor of arts degree in 2005. I now work as an academic adviser at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford.

I am living my life to the fullest, grabbing opportunities wherever and whenever I can. I have whale-watched off the coast of B.C., ridden an elephant in Thailand, taught English in China and climbed ruins in Guatemala. I plan to keep on living, learning and giving back.

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My girls, all grown up now, join me every year on the Canadian Cancer Society's Relay for Life team. Together, we celebrate my survival and honour my brother, Jim, and my mother, who lost her own battle with breast cancer. And we help spread hope for others while raising money for cancer research.

God doesn't give us more than what we can handle. When you think that life is unfair or that you can't take it anymore, remember, you can do it. Love your family and take care of yourself. And don't give up until you find your own symbol of hope.

Hodgkin's lymphoma, also known as Hodgkin's disease, is a cancer of the lymphatic system. According to the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2008, there were an estimated 890 new cases of Hodgkin's disease in Canada in 2008 and 110 deaths. The five-year survival rate is about 86 per cent.

Symptoms of Hodgkin's disease can include:

• Swelling of lymph nodes in the neck, armpits or groin;
• Persistent fatigue;
• Fever and chills;
• Night sweats;
• Unexplained weight loss;
• Loss of appetite; and
• Itching.

Who is at risk?
While it's not clear exactly what causes Hodgkin's, you're at increased risk if you:
• Are between the ages of 15 and 40, or over 55;
• Have a sibling with the disease;
• Are male (men have a slightly higher risk);
• Were infected with the Epstein-Barr virus (the infection causes illnesses such as infectious mononucleosis); or
• Have HIV-AIDS or another immune-suppressing disorder, or take medications that suppress immune response (such as those for recent organ transplant patients).

Typical Hodgkin's treatments:
Blood tests, X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, MRIs, bone scans and biopsies all help diagnose Hodgkin's disease. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on how advanced the cancer is, but it can include:
• Radiation;
• Chemotherapy;
• Bone marrow transplant;
• Biological therapy (specially developed proteins that help fight cancer cells or boost the immune system); and
• Peripheral stem cell transplant (stem cells are removed from your blood and frozen while you receive chemotherapy, and then transfused back into your system).
– Sarah Schroer

Read more:
Foods that fight cancer
The breast cancer gene
9 myths about chemotherapy explained

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Personal essay: Finding courage to conquer Hodgkin's disease

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