Personal essay: Finding courage to conquer Hodgkin's disease

A mother details the physical and spiritual struggles she endured while beating cancer.

By Michelle Rickaby

Family link to cancer
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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