In April of 2006, Olga Munari was at the end of her rope. Unhappy with her life and her marriage, Olga confessed to her personal trainer that she wished something bad would happen to her as a means to create change in her life and her relationship. The following Monday, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Kim Mecca narrates the moving story of how Olga bravely faced a life-threatening diagnosis and used it as an opportunity to create a sacred bond with her children, adopt a positive attitude, and give back to others. As Olga began her journey through surgery and subsequent treatment, she soon discovered that her healing was not only physical, but also emotional. She learned to create joy from her immense challenges. As Mecca details Olga's dedication to fundraising, her decision to not change her life because she had cancer, and her devotion to her family, she provides an unforgettable glimpse into all the ways Olga walked through the darkness of her disease and into the light of healing.
The Joy of Cancer tells the inspiring story of how one woman used her breast cancer diagnosis to slowly transform, break free of her cocoon, and become the beautiful butterfly she was always meant to be.
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The Joy Of CANCERA Journey of Self-Discovery
By Olga Munari Assaly Kim Mecca
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Olga Munari Assaly & Kim Mecca
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Butterfly Effect: The Joy of Beginning
The silence was deafening as my mind reeled. I made the call at 6:20 a.m. after a message from a close friend indicated to call her urgently. The ringtone roared like thunder in my ears against the morning hush. When she finally answered, I spoke in my groggy morning voice. "What do you want? It's six o'clock on a Monday morning. What could possibly be so urgent?"
"Kim, someone is interested in your writing," my friend Vered replied.
"I know someone who is interested in your writing skills," she repeated. "A longtime friend and client has wanted to write a book for a few years now, but she doesn't write. We got into a conversation last night, and I spoke to her about you. She wants to meet you this Saturday."
"Vered?" I said slowly. "Are you serious? What do you mean?"
"I mean she wants to meet you, and she may want you to write her book."
It was the Monday morning after I had turned down the job of my dreams. Writing was a lifelong hobby for me, and I worked as an IT systems consultant to support myself. I was successful and enjoyed my day job, but I still turned to writing in my free time as the most natural outlet for my creativity. Writing allowed me to feel fulfilled. I had a flash of wisdom as to why I had felt in my gut that I had to stay in my current position and decline the corporate opportunity of a lifetime. Everyone around me thought I was crazy to step away from a career opening that would take me to glamorous spots like L.A., New York, and Miami on a regular basis. I could hear it in their voices, pretending to understand and support my choice. "Good for you!" many told me, but their tone suggested the words were followed by three little dots rather than three huge exclamation marks.
As much as I agonized over making the decision, in the end I blindly trusted my gut. And now, not even seventy-two hours later, I possibly had the answer to why I'd had that nagging "don't do it" feeling from the start. My current job was demanding and involved a lot of responsibility, but taking on that new position would have been even more demanding and would have made it much more difficult to commit to a major writing project. I had been tinkering with the idea of writing a book for a few months, but after this brief exchange with Vered, I wondered if I was meant to write someone else's book instead.
I didn't know much about Olga, except that she was a breast-cancer survivor who, according to Vered, had quite an interesting story and had been wanting to write a memoir for some time. Vered believed my writing skills would be a great match for Olga's story. I quickly found Olga herself to be an incredibly interesting character, and I came to understand later that it was the way Olga participated in her story that had made her journey so remarkable.
Initially, the coincidental timing of our paths crossing intrigued me. Not only was it a few days after the decision I'd been agonizing over for months, but more significantly, I had lost my best friend, Jade, to breast cancer four months earlier. Jade was a remarkable woman who left a wealth of wisdom to her friends, family, students, and clients. The many who were blessed to cross paths with her were never the same. After my first meeting with Olga, it was clear that she had the same impact on people, and this made me want to help her realize this project.
Jade had wanted to write the book of her journey with cancer, except that her journey ended before she had time to leave behind a written legacy. I helped her edit her first chapter less than a year before she died. I remember leaning over Jade's bed, holding her hand as she took her last breaths, thinking, I'm almost certain this wasn't what you had in mind as the ending for your book, now, was it? I saw working with Olga as an opportunity to pay homage to Jade, to Olga, and to all the other women out there who were handed a ticket on the big C journey and traveled it in their own way.
Vered set up a meeting for the following Saturday. Olga would come to Vered's morning Zumba class, and then the three of us would have lunch together. On Saturday morning, I walked into the dance studio and found Olga standing by the reception counter talking with Vered. She had short blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes. I remembered immediately noticing how healthy she looked and how beautiful she was. If cancer had taken any toll on her physically, there was no sign of it in her appearance. She was tall with a slim figure, and her skin glowed. Dressed in black workout pants with a matching top, she seemed like a simple, down-to-earth woman.
After the class ended, the three of us made small talk for a few minutes before zipping over to our favorite spot, Le Commensal, for vegetarian eats. It was a damp, nippy day, but the sun was shining brightly. On that cold January morning, I was warmly invited to be privy to this woman's personal journey. Over the next hour, Olga recounted the story of how she came to be diagnosed with breast cancer and what happened in the months that followed.
I couldn't judge her reaction when I told her that I had lost one of my closest friends to breast cancer just four months earlier. I quietly wondered if this made her feel uncomfortable. It was the last thing I intended. Later, Olga told me that not only had she not taken offense, she believed that it was Jade who brought us together and was helping us bring this project to fruition. According to her, it was no coincidence that I had met our mutual friend, Vered, in early December, just a little over two months after Jade's passing.
And then it happened: the moment I knew for sure that this was right. Olga was telling us about how the butterfly had been her chosen symbol throughout her journey. She talked about butterflies the same way I'd heard so many others do over the past two years. "The butterfly is about transformation and rebirth," she said as our eyes met. "They are very special to me." The spoon I was using to eat my tapioca pudding stuck to the roof of my mouth, and then my jaw dropped as I made the connection.
For the last year or two, butterflies had been following me everywhere I went, and I was not able to understand why until that day. They were in the bookstore when I turned around; they were giants on the walls when I walked into church for the first time in several years; they were papier-mâché in a little boy's hand at a yoga studio where I practiced; and finally, they were Olga's token throughout her journey. As I shared my experience, all three of us were covered in goose bumps.
It was a sign.
After the butterfly coincidence, it was decided that I would be the torchbearer for Olga's story.
Chapter TwoSomething Bad Happened: The Joy of Murphy's Law
For our second meeting, Olga warmly received me in her home. Over a savory homemade lunch, she shared the ins and outs of the beginnings of her cancer journey. We sat at her dining-room table, talking as we nibbled. Olga began, "It was early morning, and I was at the gym talking to my friend and personal trainer, Janet."
The sound of the treadmill barely covered the sobs that Tuesday morning—March 28, 2006. "I was crying," Olga recounted. "Leonard and I had an argument the day before. It was the current routine. We were either disagreeing about the construction we were doing on the house, about work, or about the kids. I felt overwhelmed and confused. My life felt out of control. We had been doing construction work on the house for almost a year, which is an eternity to be living in that kind of chaos day to day."
I silently agreed with her. I could barely handle the mess my dad made putting up a set of shelves in my bedroom. I pictured a small team of men tearing out kitchen tiles, ripping out flooring, and breaking down walls, and I could imagine how difficult it was to entertain a renovation party for so long.
"I was chair of the school store at Lower Canada College (LCC), where my children attended," Olga continued. "I had been chair for seven years. I wanted to step down, but I was paralyzed by my inability to say no and afraid of disappointing all the people who had become my friends there. I just kept it up, even though I knew it was time for me to let it go."
As I listened to Olga go on, I nodded in silent agreement, thinking of the many women who must be in similar situations—feeling overwhelmed, burdened, or ready for some kind of change, but unable to take action for fear of disappointing the people they care about. It is baffling to find that for many people, it can take the diagnosis of a life-threatening illness to develop the courage to affirm their own needs.
"The kids were, for the most part, normal kids," Olga explained to me. "Andrew, at sixteen, was immersed in his studies, planning for his graduation party and college—his next chapter. Laurie, at fifteen, was my princess, a little social butterfly, now diving headfirst into the world of boys. And Jeremy, my youngest, at nine, was Momma's baby. He was in grade four and had just been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. I battled with myself, trying to understand what I had done to create this problem for him. I worked hard to get Jeremy the support he needed. We were going to weekly appointments with a psychologist who specialized in treating ADD, on top of my weekly sessions with my own therapist to try to get some order in my life.
"We were not spending a lot of quality family time together. kids all had their own bedrooms equipped with plasma TVs, granted by their tech-savvy dad. And so, between being wrapped up in their normal day-to-day childhood life and having their own personal entertainment suites, who ever saw them? I couldn't say no, and I couldn't set boundaries. I couldn't just be myself without the fear of not being liked if I said no to someone or something. I felt like I had to take everything on, and it was breaking me. I was frustrated, and the plasma TV at the gym—ironically mounted above the treadmill I was standing on—only frustrated me more. 'I'm all over the place!' I told Janet."
Olga's facial expression, as she recounted this to me, reflected the frustration she felt at the time. She was being worn thin, bearing the physical and emotional toll of everything that was going on. She was often very tired, and her patience had run dry. "I was running around like a chicken without a head, totally spent at the end of the day and not feeling fulfilled. Len was working the required long hours for the huge IT changes at work. We weren't getting much quality time together as a couple. Our marriage was strained by the demands of a very assiduous everyday life. I felt disconnected from him and alone. I wasn't getting any quality time with the kids either. I felt like I was always being set aside. My life was full, yes! But at the end of the day, I felt like I was coming up short, like I wasn't enough. I was doing everything, running here and there, taking the kids everywhere, food shopping, cooking, construction, doctors, volunteering ... I felt pulled in a million directions without any real purpose. I was not happy with what I was doing and how I was living. I thought, This is not what I want! This is not what I signed up for!"
Olga's response to her feelings of being overwhelmed and unhappy was born out of desperation: "I wished that something bad would happen to me, really bad, like getting sick, to try to get my family close again, or to see how Leonard would react." Janet, of course, had been appalled at Olga's words. She spat on the floor, in the typical Jewish custom, to try to erase the bad omen of the words that had just been spoken. It was useless.
The following Monday, Olga was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I thought of all the things I say in my own day-to-day life.
As a writer, I have a natural tendency to be extra-spirited, sometimes even dramatic, in my self-expression. I can, and do, use the phrase, "I would die if that happened!" in response to a variety of experiences, whether joyful, embarrassing, exciting, or frightening. The language we use has a huge impact on how we experience life. What if it did happen, and I would die? I thought to myself. Isn't that what Olga did? She voiced the need for something of impact to happen, and it did. I was hooked. I needed to know more about Olga's journey and was eager for her to continue sharing how her story unfolded.
Two years prior to Olga's diagnosis, her gynecologist had sent her for her first mammogram. It was a routine checkup. "Unless you have history of breast cancer in your family, most doctors don't send you for a routine mammogram until the age of fifty," Olga explained. "My doctor insists on sending her patients when they are forty." Olga's results came back very good, except for a small irregularity in her left breast. Right underneath the areola, the test revealed a cluster of cysts, approximately five to seven stuck together. She was told there was nothing to worry about.
And worry she didn't, not for a while anyway, especially because she felt no lump whatsoever. She felt nothing at all. About six months following the mammogram, Olga began to feel a throbbing discomfort in her left breast. One night, while trying to find a comfortable position, she discovered a tiny lump in that breast. Interesting, she thought to herself. Must be the cysts growing. Knowing there was no history of breast cancer in her family, she made nothing of it. But the throbbing continued and increased over time.
A year later, the throbbing had become difficult to ignore. It was preventing her from sleeping on her left side like she normally would. She had noticed that the lump was getting bigger. Olga thought about it now and then, but she did not focus on it. I'm due for my next mammogram in six months, she said to herself. I am going to wait. She continued to assume it was the cysts growing or acting up.
Six months later, she woke up suddenly in the middle of a chilly fall night. Maybe I should have this checked out. The thought came out of nowhere, and it had a sense of urgency. She felt like someone was sending her a message—maybe her grandmother, whom Olga believed had been looking out for her since passing away sixteen years earlier. The following morning, Olga contacted her gynecologist.
The office secretary had always told her to send them a fax with the details of what she needed. This would ensure that she got through to them and that she would get a quicker response. The fax read, "Discovered a lump and need an appointment." Less than two minutes after she sent the fax, the phone rang.
"Olga!" The voice of Ellen, the office secretary, blasted into the phone. "Come down to the clinic this afternoon. What time can you be here?" There was concern in her voice.
"I can't come this afternoon, I have to pick up the kids at school," Olga replied.
Olga explained to me that Ellen had lost her sister to breast cancer the year prior and, as a result, was all too cognizant of the possible dangers of a tiny lump. The secretary's tone became firm, like that of a mother who wasn't taking no for an answer.
"Olga! You know your health comes first, and you are the only person who can really take care of yourself. Make other arrangements; we will be expecting you today." Click.
At the appointment Olga dutifully made time for, Dr. Madder scribbled a note in her file, flipped her chart closed, and stepped over to the sink. "Everything seems fine, Olga, there is nothing to worry about, it's just the cysts that you are feeling," she said as Olga buttoned up her white blouse and stepped off the examining table to gather her purse and jacket from the chair placed across from the doctor's desk. "But since you are almost due for your next mammogram, let's have it checked out anyway," Dr. Madder added as she casually handed Olga the requisition.
Although a part of her was dissatisfied with this response, Olga proceeded to put the doctor's recommendation in her purse and leave it there ... for months.
As Olga told me this, I got shivers. I remembered Jade telling me that she had a questionable exam a year or two prior to her cancer diagnosis, but she had not made anything of it and put off further screening. Both Olga and Jade had the same response: "There is no history of breast cancer in my family. I was sure it was fine."
The requisition went from sitting in Olga's purse to sitting on her kitchen table. She always intended to book an appointment. But it wasn't until four months later, February of the following year, that Olga paid any attention to that requisition again.
Leonard had planned a long weekend for just the two of them as a Valentine's Day treat. After they got back, Olga decided to call for an appointment. She was to do an ultrasound and a mammogram. She also booked an appointment with her general practitioner for the following day to get a second opinion. A feeling of concern was beginning to emerge, and she wanted to see someone immediately.
Excerpted from The Joy Of CANCER by Olga Munari Assaly Kim Mecca Copyright © 2012 by Olga Munari Assaly & Kim Mecca. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Kim Fraser....................1
Foreword by Jennifer Campbell....................3
A Note from Olga....................5
1. The Butterfly Effect: The Joy of Beginning....................17
2. Something Bad Happened: The Joy of Murphy's Law....................23
3. Everything Happens for a Reason: The Joy of Friendship....................33
4. The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step: The Joy of Daring....................49
5. Everybody Loves a Winner: The Joy of Taking Initiative....................59
6. From Fear to Trust: The Joy of Chemotherapy....................69
7. Discovering the Spotlight: The Joy of Saying Yes....................85
8. Sixty Kilometers: The Joy of Achievement....................99
9. A Place to Call Home: The Joy of Forging Ties....................109
10. A Hand to Hold: The Joy of Helping Others....................121
11. A Sign: The Joy of Butterflies....................135
12. Finding Your Way Back: The Joy of Cancer....................145
Courage Is the Heart's Blossom: A Note from Beth....................161
About the Authors....................163