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Former minister: 'I didn't want cancer to define me'
It’s a hard way to learn life’s lessons – but cancer is a good teacher and it can make you a better person.
In her keynote address at the ninth annual Evening of Pink on Saturday, Dr. Margaret McDiarmid, a former politician and family physician, said she learned a valuable lesson after her diagnosis of triple negative breast cancer.
“I didn’t want cancer to define me,” she said. “I am not what I do... I learned to value myself as a person and a human being.”
MacDiarmid had just turned 50 when she got the news that would alter, and for a time sidetrack, her life’s path as a rising star in the political arena. She went on to become MLA for Vancouver-Fairview with several important portfolios including B.C. Minister of Health.
In her talk, MacDiarmid spoke with characteristic wry sense of humour about her defeat in the provincial election in 2013.
But the focus was on her win over adversity.
“I am healthy today. I don’t have any sign of the disease,” she said amid audience applause.
Along with facts and figures about breast cancer, MacDiarmid spoke of new drugs and treatment being used for the disease which strikes both men and women. She talked about her own experience.
“It was in my left breast,” she said, then paused and smiled. “I’m not going to show you my scar.”
Her frankness made people laugh.
Indeed, her ability to laugh at herself and see the humour in life, saw her through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
“Humour is a way you can cope with a difficult situation,” she said.
In October 2007, at age 50, MacDiarmid had to delay her nomination bid and political aspirations when it was discovered she had cancer. As it was Halloween time, she arrived for her breast surgery wearing a black witches’ costume complete with hat and broom.
“I took a big bag of candy.”
Humour may have been her way of coping but everyone is different, she said.
“Everyone’s different. Everyone’s experience is different... while I was having chemotherapy, I needed help... and people love helping.”
However, there were low points and MacDiarmid says she plans to pay it forward someday, and help someone else who may be struggling with the effects of chemotherapy.
“I found it hard to have no hair ...and, at one point, no eyebrows or eyelashes.”
Cancer patients go through a series of emotions, she said.
“I was shocked. I felt fear, sadness and grief... I found it helpful to read, but that is not everybody’s cup of tea. There’s a library of great resources and librarians who can help by packaging up a book and sending it out.”
She always had hope for her own survival, she said, because as a medical student back in the 1980s, she’d known someone who’d had cancer and received chemotherapy and who almost died twice – but survived.
Her own cancer was discovered following a screening mammogram which led to further testing. Cancer is graded, she said, noting that unlike school exams when you want a high score, with cancer you do not.
“I was graded nine out of nine.”
The cancer was found early and fortunately was a “very small cancer” but as a triple negative cancer it is a more aggressive type, she said, and therefore more potentially deadly.
“Cancer cells usually have receptors on them such as estrogen receptors which can respond to drugs that help to kill the cancer cells. If you have triple negative cancer and treatments don’t work, they don’t have anything else they can give you.”
She credits early detection with her positive outcome.
“I feel the mammogram almost certainly saved my life,” she said.
Pointing to facts about breast cancer, the most common type of cancer for women and second most deadly form of cancer for women, MacDiarmid said statistics show that if we live to be 90, there’s a one in nine chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer.
However, she focussed on the good news: Women today in Canada who have breast cancer are living longer, and B.C. has the best survival rate in the country. Treatments have improved with a move towards individualized treatment plans.
“There are encouraging things on the horizon.” People who experience cancer – not that they would wish to have cancer – often say they appreciate life more, MacDiarmid said.
“What a lot of them say is, ‘I’m a better person because I had cancer... Life is a gift.”
During her whirlwind tour of Prince George, she visited what she called the “wonderfully gorgeous” new cancer centre, UNBC medical school and Kordyban Lodge.
Evening of Pink is an annual fundraiser with proceeds going to Spirit of the North Healthcare Foundation to help with the purchase of new equipment used in the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.