Prevention & Recovery

When your mother has breast cancer: Kalan Porter's story

By: Vickie Reichardt

Image from Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

When your mother has breast cancer: Kalan Porter's story

By: Vickie Reichardt
Originally titled "Journey with my mom," from the October 2007 issue of Canadian Living Magazine, on newsstands or click here to purchase online.

It was real

The first time Kalan Porter saw his mother, Janet, without any hair, it was like having the wind knocked out of him. Weeks of telephone calls between the pair weren’t enough to completely prepare him for the shock of seeing the side-effects of breast cancer treatment on his once-vibrant mother, Janet. “I remember walking in the front door when I got home and saw my mom bald,” he recalls. “It was right then when I had to catch my breath because it was real.”

Janet was diagnosed with stage-one infiltrating ductal carcinoma after a routine mammogram in 2006. The disease accounts for approximately 80 per cent of all breast cancers in women. “There was no palpable lump at all, and I was told by all the doctors not to worry, as they were sure it was nothing,” recalls Janet. “There was no history of breast cancer in my family. I felt healthy. We were all totally shocked that it was cancer. It was pretty devastating.” A week after her diagnosis Janet underwent surgery and began treatment.

A tight family
The Porters have always been a close-knit clan. Janet and her husband, Rick, raised Kalan and his two younger sisters on the family’s generations-old cattle and buffalo ranch near the small town of Irvine, Alta., about a half-hour outside Medicine Hat. With kilometres of farmland separating them from their nearest neighbours, they relied on one another – and extended family members who lived nearby – for support and a sense of community.

With his mother’s encouragement, Kalan was winning local singing competitions in his preteen years, learning to play an assortment of instruments – including the viola, violin and guitar – and plunging himself into music. Their collective efforts eventually helped Kalan hit the Canadian Idol stage, where the soft-spoken, self-proclaimed “small-town country kid” became an instant fan favourite.

A rising star
Three years ago at the age of 18, after some 3.6 million votes were cast, Kalan crooned Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” to edge out Theresa Sokyrka of Saskatoon for the Idol crown. Kalan immediately found himself – and his family – thrust into the national spotlight.

“It was kind of a scary time. I know it was for my parents because they were worried with what was happening with their son going off into the big world.” Janet agrees, recalling that the sudden attention from the media and fans felt a bit like a tsunami. “It bowls you over. You just hold on and try to ride through it.”

Page 1 of 4A tough phone call
The phone call from Janet that revealed the diagnosis of breast cancer was not easy for mother or son. At the time, Kalan was in Toronto, having just finished a sold-out cross-Canada concert tour and getting ready to start work on his second album. “I remember the first thing I did [after she called] was go on to the computer and Google ‘breast cancer life expectancy.’ I was just freaked out,” says Kalan.

Janet was concerned for her son, who she feared would have an even tougher time with the news because of his isolation from family. “I knew he didn’t have anyone that could really support him,” she says. To some extent, Janet was right. Kalan tried to soldier on and immerse himself in his work while keeping tabs on his mother’s health through phone calls, but all he could think about was going home.

Going home
After two months Kalan decided to put his musical endeavours on hold and be with his mom. “It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, which seems weird because you’d think going home and spending time with your mom would be a no-brainer,” he says. Janet understood the magnitude of his decision; by setting his career aside just as he was hitting it big, Kalan might be sacrificing it completely. “We tried to encourage him to stay in Toronto,” she recalls. “We were concerned that the recording company would not stand behind his decision and that he may be released. We thought that was a huge thing for him to give up.”

Thankfully, Kalan’s record label told him to take as much time as he needed. His fans had a similar reaction. After he announced his mother’s illness on his website, the outpouring of love began. Countless individuals posted their best wishes on online message boards, and a giant album was sent to Janet, filled with prayers, letters and personal notes from Kalan’s fans across the country. Knowing that Kalan’s loyal audience would be there after his self-imposed hiatus was a relief for all the Porters, and it made Kalan’s return home an easier transition, at least professionally.

Change on the home front
Personally, though, it was an emotional adjustment. The home he’d left behind almost two years prior was no longer the same; the woman who once “had all the answers” was now sick and in need of help herself. Chemotherapy had ravaged Janet’s body, leaving her weak and sore. In addition to losing her hair, she endured digestive problems, tenderness and recurring mouth sores, so it was up to Kalan and the family to take charge of the household chores and ensure her needs were met. “The roles were reversed,” says Kalan. “It was the first time in my life that I caught a glimpse of a world without my parents, and it really scared me.”

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Being there
But fear soon gave way as the music sensation who had won this country’s heart became a de facto nurse throughout his mother’s treatment and subsequent recovery, especially during the days between chemotherapy sessions. Kalan had spent a summer during high school working in a medical lab, and his training suddenly came in very handy.

“I was on a program where I had to have 10 needles; one a day for 10 days,” Janet explains about her medical regimen, which ultimately involved some 60 injections as well as six chemotherapy sessions. “Kalan often gave me the needles because I couldn’t give them to myself,” she says. “It was only because of my family that I completed my chemo treatments. After each [one] I was certain that I could not physically or mentally do another one, but the family was always there, encouraging me to continue on.”

Kalan opens up about his feelings
Janet credits her illness with strengthening the bond she shares with Kalan. He spent nearly half a year at home, giving them time to reconnect. Routine activities like making breakfast together after everyone else had left for the day, or settling in with a cup of tea by an evening fire at the family’s lakeside cabin, often led to in-depth discussions.

“Kalan opened up about a lot of his own feelings,” says Janet. “We had conversations that went deeper than just the normal exchange of information and only giving what is required to satisfy Mom. We just spent hours talking about what’s important in life. There were some very emotional conversations and ones in which we were laughing so hard that one of us had to run to the bathroom.” The pair enjoyed spirited debates about politics and social issues, and shared some tête-à-têtes about Kalan’s future and where his career might lead him someday.

Kalan, too, was grateful for the time he was able to share with his mother and the rest of his family, away from the pressures of the music industry. “We slowed down, all together, and took some time as a family,” he says. “It really brought us together and strengthened our relationship again.”

Page 3 of 4Fond memories
Janet’s voice cracks for the first time as she recounts a touching gift from her son. “When he was younger, just little-little, I read him this book by Robert Munsch, Love You Forever,” she says. At the end of the book the little boy grows up and he takes care of his mother. “He bought that book for me for Mother’s Day.” She searches for the right words to express how meaningful a gesture it was but then simply adds, with emotion heavy in her voice, “It was something so small but it meant so much.”

These days Janet’s health is much improved, and she has resumed the active life she enjoyed before her diagnosis. “She’s running around with my sisters, on the go,” says Kalan, pleased. Likewise, his career is once again in full swing. His latest album, Wake Up Living, was released in August, and another concert tour is on deck.

Musically, the tone of the new CD reflects some of Kalan’s emotions before, during and after this difficult period, with a number of songs subtly capturing his moods at the time they were written. As a way of spreading awareness about his mother’s disease, Kalan has also begun working with the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation’s Run for the Cure.

"You learn to value your family more"
Though their lives have returned to a new normal, both Kalan and Janet say that, despite the pain and suffering that accompanied her illness, they’re better for having survived it together. They have a renewed sense of purpose and meaning in life. “You learn to value your family more, your friendships more, your life more, the little things,” says Janet. “They just became so much more meaningful.” Kalan agrees, admitting that this experience, however harrowing, grounded him and made him re-evaluate his priorities.

He no longer wastes time and energy worrying about trivial matters like bad reviews, unflattering press photos or online gossip. Instead, just like his mom, he’s ready to take on the world and face whatever comes his way.

Read up on everything you need to know about breast health.

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Prevention & Recovery

When your mother has breast cancer: Kalan Porter's story