Cancer affects more than just the person who contracts it. Here are a few views on one patient’s diagnosis, from those who helped her along the way
Photo by Aaron Pedersen
Two years ago, Kim Rideout of Red Deer had the perfect life. She was married to her high school sweetheart. She had a good job, two beloved daughters and friends everywhere. A transplant from Upper Gullies, Newfoundland, she and her husband Cliff loved camping in the summertime and snowmobiling when the snow flew. In March 2012, that life came crashing down.
At an appointment with her new general practitioner, she’d asked for antibiotics for a recurring infection in her right breast. The doctor examined her and recommended a mammogram. Kim explained that it wasn’t necessary; she’d just had her annual mammogram in November. But the doctor insisted. By the time she got home, there was a message on her machine for a next-day screening appointment. “It all seemed so routine,” says Kim. “But really the stars were just lining up.”
On March 14, the mammogram technician took multiple pictures of both breasts. Then there was an ultrasound. When the radiologist came to talk to her, Kim felt like she was floating. Tears streamed down her face. “Are you telling me I have breast cancer?” she asked. “Yes,” he said, “in your left breast.”
Exiting the office that day, she remembers a few things – that fresh springtime smell, the noise of traffic, wetness on the back of her neck – but not how she got home. Some days it feels like it was yesterday, recalls Kim. “The date is beginning to fade, but the experience will be with us for a lifetime.”
The system kicked quickly into gear. There was a biopsy in nearby Devon, surgery to remove two tumours (Kim had stage 2B cancer, meaning the tumours were of a certain size and one tumour was in a lymph node), scans to confirm the cancer had not metastasized, six sessions of chemotherapy in Red Deer and 16 sessions of radiation in Calgary (Red Deer did not have the capacity for providing radiation treatment until recently). Kim took eight months off work to deal with her treatments.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I didn’t want to hurt my family. I was afraid I was going to die but wasn’t ready to be a memory.”
Chemotherapy was brutal. Kim experienced mouth ulcers, bone pain, panic attacks and debilitating fatigue. Steroids added 35 pounds to her petite frame. She lost her hair. “I was extremely uncomfortable.” To get to radiation sessions at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, she and Cliff drove through severe snowstorms. One day a semi jack-knifed right in front of them. “We were definitely white-knuckling it,” she says.
At a low point, she said to Cliff, “I don’t think I’ll ever get healthy again. I don’t know if I can do this.” He said, “You don’t have a choice.” That was the last time she felt like giving up.
When the treatments were over, there were more issues to deal with. There were mood swings, anti-depressants and a few sessions of counselling. Family members also admitted to feeling extreme stress and found solace in their own private ways. “There was a whole lot of stuff going on in my body that I didn’t have the faculties to deal with, but everyone was suffering,” says Kim.
And once the medical monitoring finishes, Kim recalls, “You feel like you’ve been thrown off a ledge without a parachute. What if the cancer comes back? How will I know? You should be feeling better but you are not. The fatigue and mental aspect is still in play.”
It can take a year after treatments conclude to feel settled again. Kim has now resumed regular activities and regained her sense of hope. She has a new perspective. “I am thankful, grateful, blessed and loved. My story is a good story.”
A large part of Kim’s recovery had to do with her supports. People emailed and texted supportive messages, laughed and joked with her and shared their lives with her. “I wanted people to treat me the same as they normally would. It made me feel part of the human race.”
Based on her own experience, Kim says she has a few suggestions for dealing with a loved one with cancer: Don’t ask too many questions, don’t smother the patient, and take your lead from the patient. Replace pity with compassion.
Kim kept people informed about her cancer experience with regular group emails. She was often asked to create a blog or write a book. Last May she published Taken to My Knees: My Journey After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis, (taken from a phrase Kim used to describe her low points) and has subsequently mentored other women with breast cancer.
“Feel it, breathe through it, take it one day at a time or one hour at a time,” she says to women with breast cancer. “If you can’t put one foot in front of the other, crawl. I was not too proud to crawl.”
And things will get better, she adds. “You’ll get there. You just need to have faith in yourself.”
As Kim says, cancer impacts not only the patient but their loved ones. Here are some of their stories:
Krista Rawson – The Nurse Practitioner
In her capacity as a nurse practitioner at the Central Alberta Cancer Centre, Krista sees and counsels dozens of people every day. But when she met Kim in the spring of 2012, she knew she would never forget her. “People like Kim stick in your mind,” she says.
Their first meeting took place just before Kim’s second chemotherapy session. Kim came with her husband, Cliff, and a friend. Kim was very upset that day. She was 44, working full time and parenting two young adults. She and Cliff had been together since their teens and now she had cancer. “We don’t anticipate facing our own mortality at that age,” explains Krista. And Kim was doing just that.
But Kim faced the day – and each future session – with courage and grace. She spent time at the information centre. With Krista she talked about coming to terms with the diagnosis and side-effects she was experiencing from treatment, such as mouth sores, bowel issues and extreme fatigue. She was also concerned about maintaining intimacy with her husband. It was a heavy-duty session; Kim was in shock, teary and afraid. But her trademark sense of humour was intact, recalls Krista. “I remember we laughed a lot.”
Krista saw Kim 10 times – before each chemotherapy session and, less frequently, while Kim took radiation sessions in Calgary. She followed up with a prescription for Tamoxifen (nurse practitioners can prescribe medications) and a handful of phone calls.
There are many professionals who work with cancer patients on their journeys; there might be a social worker, a psychologist, an oncologist or general practitioner or a nurse navigator who co-ordinates sessions and services. “We are woven together like a net to catch people in crisis. It is such a privilege for me to work in the field,” says Krista.
The cancer experience is profoundly stressful, destroying some relationships, particularly if they are already fragile. But with strong couples, relationships may not only survive, they may thrive. That is what happened with the Rideouts, notes Krista. “Kim and Cliff are an extraordinarily close couple. This [cancer] was not going to get in the way of that connection.” Plus, she adds, Kim had a very supportive network with friends, immediate and extended family and colleagues injecting practical and emotional support.
Kim and Krista had an open and honest rapport, with no question deemed insignificant or inappropriate. “It is your health. It is you and your family,” adds Krista. “What you bring to the table is a priority.”
Matt Olson – The Boss
Matt Olson is Farm Credit Canada’s district director for central Alberta and his office is in Red Deer. As such, he is the head honcho where
“I first heard about Kim’s cancer from her direct supervisor, Spencer Higginson. Our first questions were: What would be the impact for Kim and how do we support her through this?”
Matt met with Kim before, during and after treatments to plan work and support strategies. His messages to Kim were clear – we have your back, we’re going to do what we can to help you out, we don’t want you to worry about your job. That is the way every employee in crisis should be treated, explains Matt. “She was worried about her job; we were worried about her life.”
He explained disability benefits to Kim – short-term leave would kick in for 15 weeks at 100 per cent salary followed by long-term disability at 70 per cent. Kim was off work for approximately eight months, while getting treatment, and wanted to come back full-boar in December. Spencer suggested an integrated six-week plan, which started at 10 hours a week and built back up to full time by the end of January 2013.
While on leave, staff invited Kim to coffee and lunches. Staying connected like this allowed both Kim and her co-workers to feel comforted and to envision hope for Kim’s future. Staff supported a fundraising run in 2012 and 2013, by running with her or sponsoring her financially (the company matched employee donations). They also had access to employee assistance program (EAP) counselling services, to deal with the emotional impact of having a beloved colleague with cancer.
After Kim wrote her book, the company sent her on tour to tell her story to other company divisions and partners. “We have a business that needs to operate, but it is more than just dollars and cents. It is about people and doing the right thing,” says Matt. Kim told Matt that on her last day of work she got a hug from every employee and that meant the world to her. “We didn’t think that was much, but she did. For us, it is just part of being human.”
Tammy Dodge – The Friend
Tammy, a nurse, found out that Kim had cancer from a mutual friend who contacted people, at Kim’s request. “My wheels started turning,” she explains. The radiologist had said it was cancer even before the biopsy was conducted. “I didn’t think it was going to be a false positive. This was going to be a new reality for Kim.”
Kim didn’t want to talk to anyone that day, so Tammy sent a supportive text to her: “I love you. When you are ready to talk, I am here for you.” Afterwards Tammy spent many afternoons and evenings at the Rideouts talking to Kim and her family about technical things, like how the incision from surgery was healing or how Kim’s body was responding to the anesthetic. She recommended Kim’s daughter attend a key appointment and be the note-taker, so that details would not be forgotten. She joined Cliff at the hospital for Kim’s surgery and attended chemotherapy sessions
Tammy filled Kim in on what was going on with her and her own family. And they laughed – a lot. “I was constantly trying to bring laughter into the situation. Kim loves to laugh and the sound of her laugh is contagious.” She listened a lot (no advice unless she was asked for it), gave lots of hugs and tried to take Kim’s mind off things. One text gave Kim a hard time: “You have earned the right to be sad. But not for long!” Because that was the way Kim would want it.
Spending time with Kim during her struggles upped the intimacy factor of their friendship. “There were no holds barred; no conversation was off the table,” says Tammy. “We needed her as much as she needed us. She still wanted to be a confidante.”
Tammy has become a better person as a result of accompanying Kim on this life event, she says. She donates more readily now, volunteers and readily sends caring messages to friends and colleagues. She feels grateful, doesn’t stress as much about the little things anymore and is protective of her family. “I don’t want my kids or husband to ever feel that fear the Rideouts felt.”
Tammy has advice for the friends and colleagues of people who are ill. Don’t be afraid or intimidated to reach out. “No one is going to turn down a kind word or gesture.” And, if you’re a woman, be vigilant about your own health whether through self examination or screening, she advises. At the age of 42, in light of Kim’s diagnosis, Tammy had her first mammogram.
Cliff Rideout – The Husband
It started out as an ordinary day. Cliff went to work and Kim went for what they thought was a routine mammogram. But when Cliff got home and heard the news, he “went to pieces.” This was unusual for the shop supervisor, who has cried maybe three times in his life – when his mother died of ovarian cancer and when his daughters were born. “But your mind goes to the worst,” he explains.
He accompanied Kim to the biopsy, the surgery and followup treatments. “Take whatever time you need. Family is everything,” his supervisor at Halliburton told him. He wasn’t docked any pay for time off and the couple’s generous employee benefit plans covered 100 per cent of medication costs, totalling $17,000. “This took the pressure off,” adds Cliff. “We were fortunate not to have the financial stress.”
Cliff’s sister and brother-in-law came out from Newfoundland to help the family, as did Kim’s best friend. “It made things a lot easier,” Cliff says.
Most of the time, Kim was comforting Cliff and the girls. “I barely saw her cry. I would ask her millions of times how she was. She must’ve been sick of it. But she said she was fine and I wanted to believe it. She wanted the treatments done and over with and to be back to normal.”
Cliff appreciates his life now more than ever. He and Kim have begun to travel, not waiting for the perfect time or until they are flush with money. They went to their nephew’s wedding in Jamaica last October and have a trip to the Dominican Republic planned for this spring. And the edges are blurring a bit on exact times and dates, on finely tuned details of the cancer experience.
Writing the book and speaking to groups about her experience has been Kim’s therapy and Cliff fully supports her in that. But that is not his style. He wants to move on. “I am kind of sick of cancer.” Cliff doesn’t know how he coped that year. “Kim’s attitude and personality actually made me feel better. She is an amazing lady.”
And as far as what Cliff contributed to Kim’s welfare? “I was just there. That is everything. There is no magic.”