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LETTER: Lessons I learned from battling cancer

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I am lucky. Having survived and beaten cancer four times in the last six years, you may wonder how I can say that? There are many reasons, which I have described along with a million other observations, in a personal journal I have kept since finding the first suspicious lump all those years ago. My journal runs to 283 pages, of which most would hold no interest for healthy individuals. I suspect that cancer patients and survivors might have a different reaction as they compare their stories with mine. But I digress.

I will focus on the top four reasons why I’m one of the luckiest people on the planet today, even as I await my next and last treatment plan. I will start with the most recent, sparked by events that happened just a few hours ago. I attended the Bellerose Bike-a-Thon closing ceremony, the culmination of 48 hours of non-stop cycling by dedicated teams of high school students who have carried on this tradition for 17 years, raising close to three million dollars for the Alberta Cancer Foundation and Kids with Cancer.

This one turned out to be especially significant. I taught one semester at Bellerose 22 years ago and still know many of the teachers. Both my sons attended Bellerose and our younger son graduated in 2014, the year following my first cancer diagnosis. It was six years ago today I watched him receive the Dave Jung award for his role in organizing and supporting the Bike-a-Thon. It was understandably very emotional for both of us. I went directly to the Cross for my first of 20 radiation treatments, having already finished chemotherapy after surgery to excise a malignant aggressive lymph node tumour from my neck. Little did I know this would be the first of an almost endless progression of diagnoses and treatments over the next six years, culminating in a stem cell transplant in 2018 which proved unsuccessful.

Once again facing the same type of lymphoma, now referred to as refractory, I have one treatment option left: a radical new gene therapy called CAR T-cell, designed specifically for blood cancers like mine, with an amazing 50-80% CURE rate. I am awaiting approval from AHS to have this treatment in Seattle, or if that doesn’t come through, I will qualify for a clinical trial at the U of A, under the supervision of my oncologist who is the lead researcher. I am lucky because I actually have a treatment plan. With any other type of organ cancer, it would have been the end of the line two years ago.

This brings me to the second reason. I have spent about 2/3 of the last six years waiting; for tests and scans, results, biopsies, surgeries, diagnoses, treatments and ultimately for proof of remission. Without exception I have had the highest level of expertise and care at the Cross Cancer Institute, from lab techs, to chemo nurses, oncologists, surgeons, researchers, ultrasound/CT/PET/MRI radiologists, and to all who played supporting roles. In every single instance I had the best possible individual care and paid not one single penny out of pocket. Where else in the world can anyone make this claim? I am indeed lucky to live in this province and country.

The third reason is perhaps one that most people might take for granted; the love and undying support of my family and friends who have done everything in their power to help me withstand these challenges and not give up. They give me the courage and strength to carry on when things looked hopeless. I am filled with hope and gratitude for so many gestures of love and compassion, including 100 tulips that arrived today from my wonderful sister. I am unbelievably lucky to be supported by every thoughtful caring act.

I cannot say that having cancer has been fun but it has taught me lessons I never would have learned otherwise. As a teacher, I consider myself lucky to have learned them before it’s too late.

Lynne Burns, St. Albert