Cancer.  It is one of the most negative, enraging words in my vocabulary.  I hate Cancer.  I hate what it does to people, their family, their friends.  I hate what it did to my Aunt Deb.

Aunt Deb was beautiful, kind, giving, successful, always full of life and surrounded by friends.  She loved live theatre, music, fine wine, good food, and golfing.  She had a zest for living and was a true friend to those who knew her.  I guess that’s why when she passed away, her memorial service was so full that people were overflowing into the hallways, foyer, and out the front doors of one of the biggest funeral homes in the city.

I always felt close to Aunt Deb – like I could ask her anything.  She and my Uncle Tony never had children, so I feel like me (and my sister) got special treatment.  We got to spend weekends at their cottage when we were younger and went on special outings like to Toronto to see Les Miz or out for dinner and Christmas shopping.  I was thrilled, as was she, to have her be a part of the birth of our 3rd child, Alexander in Sept of ’08.  What a blessing to have my Aunt in our home as we peacefully welcomed him here, surrounded in love.  Those times are so precious and very cherished.

My Aunt was diagnosed with breast cancer about five years ago.  My initial reaction was of confusion as to why my Mom (her sister) was so upset and worried.  My Aunt Deb was so strong – so indestructible to me.  I just didn’t even consider that she would or COULD lose a battle with anything, including Cancer.   So, I didn’t worry.  Truthfully, I think part of me couldn’t worry or I’d lose my mind.

But, even the strongest of people sometimes can’t beat the evil and destructive power of this disease.  On January 6th, 2009 at the age of 50, Aunt Deb lost her brave battle and  left this world an emptier place.

When she was sick, my Aunt was great (maybe an expert) at hiding any pain or discomfort she was in.  If you asked how she was doing, she was always, “GREAT!”.  She wanted to live and really live.  She wanted to be “Deb” not “Deb with Cancer”.  I got it then and I get it even more now.  She was and remains the bravest person I’ve ever known.  I admire her more than words can ever express for her strength, grace, and acceptance of what was to be.  She is amazing.

As she got worse in 2009, I sensed something wasn’t right.  I knew Aunt Deb was not doing well.  She had done EVERYTHING to fight… she had a Masectomy, used natural methods, Chinese Medicine, Acupuncture, Chiropractic, radically changing her diet, Chemo, radiation, even stuff I’d never hear of from Europe, the list goes on – and she was still dying.  But what could I do?  She didn’t want to talk about it – she wanted to remain positive and focus on other things.  I could at least give her that – and that’s what everyone did.  We respected her desires.  It wasn’t until after she was so sick I could no longer have a conversation with her (because she literally couldn’t talk) that I realized she had a brain tumor and Cancer had spread throughout her body.  She didn’t want anyone to know she’d already outlived her “time” given by the medical world by several months.

I’m not angry that I didn’t know.  But I’m mad at myself for not spending more time with her in the end.  If I had known how critically close to leaving this world she was, I would have called more, visited more, spent more time just letting her know I care.  But, as my Uncle pointed out shortly after her death, that wasn’t really what she wanted.  She wanted solitude.  She needed it.  So, I’ve found peace.  We can’t live life focusing on regrets – especially those we can’t change.   I know she wouldn’t have wanted that for me.  So, I must press on, just as Aunt Deb would have.  Just as Aunt Deb did.

Me and Aunt Deb in 2007

One of my favourite pictures – baby Alex and Aunt Deb in early December ’08, about a month before her passing.

Last picture with Aunt Deb taken on Christmas day 2009, about a week and a half before her death.

From left – My sister with baby Alex, myself, Aunt Deb.

Through my journey with Aunt Deb and within my time of mourning her passing, I’ve learned a lot.  I thought it might be useful to share some of the things that have really helped me through such a difficult time.

5 Ways I Found Peace in the midst of Cancer and death

1. I wrote a letter to my loved one. Writing a letter to Aunt Deb was very therapeutic.  In fact, in the days leading up to her death, I sent her several emails recalling happy memories and great times.  I know she worked so hard at reading them, though she was so tired and sick.  But I wrote her a one-page letter that basically said everything I wanted to make sure she heard from me.  I read it to her a couple days before she passed away.  Definitely, it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – and she was so sick by then that she didn’t respond.  But I knew she heard me and it gave me great peace to know that she left this earth knowing how incredibly special she was to me and that her life AND death would not be forgotten.

2. I forced myself to focus on the life lived, NOT the illness. When you lose a close family member or friend to Cancer, it is easy to start dwelling on the disease and how it took them from you.  By day 2 of doing this,  something inside of my urged me to stop.  Often times (like with my Aunt) people who are struggling with Cancer don’t dwell on it while they’re alive – so why should we hold on to it in their death?  Remember them for who they were and the love you shared.  That is the legacy they leave.

3. I  tried to drown my hurt in doing good for others. You can find a lot of peace in stepping outside of yourself and doing something for someone else.  When my Aunt passed – I tried to spend time doing things that would bless other people.  I called friends I hadn’t talked to in a while.  I talked to family members who needed someone to talk to.  I wrote to our sponsor kids.  Doing little things like this really took my mind off my own pain and put me in a better place.

4. I allowed my loved one’s death to inspire change within me. This is a biggie.  Aunt Deb was the first person who was close to me that has ever died.  The fact that she was only 50 and, in my mind, wasn’t SUPPOSED to die for another many years- added many painful layers to the loss.  I couldn’t just move on.  There was a lot to take in.  I was violently reminded of my own mortality.  Of the mortality of all those around me.  I was jolted into the reality that life IS FRAGILE.  And, I allowed that to fully soak in.  I had dreams about my Aunt Deb still being alive for weeks, and had a few breakdowns where I was convinced I had Cancer, and once, that I was having a stroke.  It sounds ridiculous, but these are the things that haunt you when you watch someone close to you die.   But, though it was hard, I welcomed the awakening and to this day I still cling to it.  I changed my thinking and it has become something truly positive in my life.

Through this experience, I’ve learned to cherish ALL the moments of life and the wonderful people around me.  My husband and I have both grown to love and adore each other and our children to a level we never did before.  The little things that would have been conflicts before don’t seem like such a big deal anymore.  I’m a work in progress, of course, but I have grown more drastically in the year since Aunt Deb’s death than ever before in all of my life and I believe that is extremely significant.  I refuse to NOT live life in the moment…  especially the tender, quiet moments.  We’ve chosen to Homeschool our children for many reasons, but one of the big ones, is simply wanting to BE with them as much as we can and fully cherish our time together.  I’m willing to make the sacrifices to do what I feel I need to do as a Mom, wife, friend, etc.   This life is all we get… and that’s a big discovery, that many people never have the privilege of realizing.   It’s amazing what can grow and how we can change if we welcome the discovery within.

5. I looked to God. I understand that not everyone believes in God or in my case, Jesus Christ.  So, this is simple a telling of my experience.  For me, nothing about Cancer made sense.  It still doesn’t.  And there were times when I threw my arms up and wept, screaming, “WHY?!  WHY GOD!?  Why does this stuff happen!?”.  But we live in such an imperfect world… and bad things happen all the time.  For me, there is incredible peace in knowing that, although our world is dark and imperfect, God is Light and Perfect Love.  He comes and comforts us when chaos surrounds.  He calms the storm within – through the pain of loss, we can come closer to Him and He is waiting with arms wide open.  He is the one true peace-giver.

Thank you for reading and for helping me keep the memories of my Aunt Deb alive.  She always encouraged me to write and was more than willing to read anything I sent her way.  I never would have thought I’d be writing a piece like this – but I did it for her, and to hopefully help or maybe even inspire others in their grief.

Aunt Deb – you were and will always remain very precious to me, thank you for the gift of ‘you’ in my life.