For World Cancer Day, we’d like to share a personal story of one of our own staff who battled cancer and has not let it define her. Stories like Joelle’s bring us together, as we’re all touched in some way by cancer, whether through friends or family.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for Joelle Mar. In January of 2019, she had just had a clear mammogram and ultrasound. She was being monitored regularly because she had a maternal family history of breast cancer, so she was considered high-risk at the time.
Joelle had just discovered that one of her closest friends had been diagnosed with breast cancer. She asked her how she could best support her and her friend said, “Go have a breast exam.”
Joelle told her that she had been having regular exams and that her ultrasound and mammogram at the time had come back normal. Eight months later, she was out gardening and it felt like the underwire of her bra had snapped.
“I felt pain and I went to feel what it was and it felt like there was a ping pong ball in my breast,” she said.
She went inside to have her husband have a look at it. Once he felt what she had felt, his face went white and said we need to see our family doctor. Her doctor saw her right away, recommended having it looked at, and booked a mammogram and an ultrasound. Throughout this time, people tried to reassure her that it couldn’t possibly be cancer because it hurt and it had only been eight months since her mammogram.
“Cancer doesn’t grow that fast is what people kept saying to me. I’m telling you, it does.”
She had the mammogram and thought maybe it was just a cyst. Then she endured the scariest ultrasound of her life.
“It was an hour and a half and the technician was going up and down and up and down. I started to think, should I have asked my husband to come in with me?”
The technician left the room and returned, saying the radiologist wanted to speak to her. Joelle prepared herself for bad news.
“She came in and said we found three masses and there are three lymph nodes we want to get biopsied and we’d like to have them done sooner rather than later.”
Joelle was in shock and could barely speak. No questions came to mind for her at the time. After booking the next available appointment, she walked back to the car where her husband told her 85% of biopsies come back negative. Despite him trying to remain optimistic, Joelle had a gut feeling that she had cancer. She had to wait seven excruciating days to get the results.
“The biopsy was the hardest part. I had 16 core samples removed over two hours. It was horrendous. I had four lymph nodes biopsied. Seven days later on September 11th, I got the news that I had Stage 3, Grade 3 Breast Cancer.”
She was triple positive, meaning estrogen, progesterone and something called HER2 were her receptors, making her cancer grow at a rapid rate. Because she was HER2-positive, her cancer was very aggressive. Her doctors revisited the previous mammogram and saw nothing on it. A surgeon called her within seven days and asked if she could be at an appointment in 45 minutes. They were in a clinic at Foothills Medical Centre as soon as they could get there and they did another ultrasound.
“I had gone from three tumors to seven tumors in three weeks. There were five lymph nodes now affected. We didn’t have the luxury of time.”
She met with an Oncologist and they decided to do chemotherapy first to shrink the tumors. She had an emergency bone and CT scan to ensure the cancer had not spread anywhere else.
“I was diagnosed on a Thursday, and started chemotherapy the next week. There was no time to even process. Sometimes I think it’s better if you don’t have time to process.”
She felt like she was in pure survival mode and in fight or flight. People kept telling her how brave she was, but she didn’t see it as being brave. It was an instinct and there was no choice that really needed to be made.
“When you have the choice, cake or death, you choose cake.”
Joelle’s prognosis was that she would have to endure two and a half years of treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and drug therapy. She was told she had an 88% chance of survival, whereas most people that aren’t HER2-positive have a 96% survival rate. Since her cancer was genetic, she was tested, and the results came back with her being CHEK2, meaning more genetic mutations contributed to her breast cancer. Hers included her breast, colon and ovaries.
“To mitigate my risk, I had a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. It was a 17-hour surgery. I also had my ovaries removed.”
For Joelle, throwing everything she had at battling cancer was the only way she knew how to fight.
“When one person gets cancer, everybody in the family gets cancer. It’s almost harder on the caregivers because they feel so vulnerable and they don’t know if they’re doing enough.”
Joelle had an eight-year-old at the time and it was important for her to be honest with her daughter, but also shield her from anything that would be too scary. The most challenging time for her was before they knew what the treatment would look like and pretended everything was ok.
When her daughter was at school and she was at work, everything seemed fine, but when her daughter came home and she had to pretend everything was alright when she just wanted to crawl into bed and cry, she couldn’t.
“You have a little somebody there that’s watching you and wondering what’s going on. We didn’t want to create any undue stress. But when we did find out, we were very forthcoming with the information, but it was measured of course.”
One of the most difficult parts of her journey with cancer was knowing that her cancer was genetic and that there was a history of breast cancer on both maternal and paternal sides, meaning the chances of her daughter having breast cancer are quite high.
“The realization that this could impact my child, that helped me make decisions about my treatment. I wanted them to throw everything at me. Trial drugs, everything so that I can pave the way for people that come after me.”
The medical care she received can be summed up in one word. World-class. It was an interesting perspective for her because she is a professional fundraiser.
“The amazing talent we have in this city and how we can attract and retain the talent we have was incredible to see first-hand. I was astounded by the care I received, it was Rolls-Royce.” She can’t thank her medical team enough for saving her life.
Joelle was 47 when she was diagnosed and was told to get her affairs in order. For her, she looked at what kind of legacy she wanted to leave. When looking at it through a philanthropy lens, she knew it was important to make a legacy gift, even though at 47, she never thought she’d need to make these decisions. She asked herself how she wanted her family to remember her and what impact she could have beyond. Now, she has had a huge change in her perspective where if something is stressful or upsets her, she thinks, is this going to matter in five years?
After losing so many of the things related to femininity: her hair, breasts, ovaries, eyebrows and eyelashes, she sees beauty as something very different now.
“You start to think about what’s important and see real beauty. You’re able to appreciate real beauty in other people.”
She no longer takes anything for granted, especially her health. Birthdays are something she celebrates in a big way now.
“I really celebrate birthdays because they truly are gifts and you don’t know if you’re going to get another one,” she said.
After being in remission and deciding to return to work, she feels she’s now in a position where she can give back to the system and is even more passionate about what she does.
“I feel very privileged to be able to do what I do because I’m essentially able to give back to a system that saved my life.”
Joelle sees cancer as a chapter in her story, not the entire story. Once she makes the five-year mark of remission, it will be a very powerful milestone as her risk of reoccurrence decreases. She considers herself a cancer thriver. Her faith and family kept her going through the most difficult times and she is incredibly grateful to be where she is today.