Calgarian Kathie Geleta was a fit 44-year-old when she found a small, painful lump the size of a pea in her left breast. Nevertheless, she was not overly concerned. She had recently had a clear mammogram and there was no history of breast cancer in her family. In fact, she was so confident it was nothing that during routine physical with her doctor a week later, she forgot to mention it.
“I never thought cancer was a possibility,” she says. “I am super active, I was a dancer my whole life, I never smoked, I don’t drink. I’m just a clean living kind of person.”
But when she came home, her husband hit the roof. He insisted she go back and tell the doctor about the lump. “At first I ignored him, but two or three days later, I thought it felt bigger.”
That was in February of 2005. One month later, Geleta was diagnosed with a grade three, stage one malignant form of breast cancer. Stages of cancer describe the size and spread of the disease; grades describe the degree of abnormality of cells and tissue. In stage one, the cancer is evident but contained to a main area. In grades three and four, tumours tend to be growing and spreading faster. Which is why, on April 22, 2005, Geleta and her husband of 20 years found themselves driving to the hospital for an emergency bilateral, or double, mastectomy.
Presenting the cheque
“It was a very tough morning,” she says. “Richard was so emotional. He is pretty stoic usually, a strong little Ukrainian guy, and he is usually so positive. It was like his world was falling apart. I kept telling him: don’t worry, everything is going to be fine, which is not really how I was feeling.”
After the surgery, Geleta was informed that while her right breast had been cancer-free, her left breast had developed two more grade three tumours, and the rest of the breast was already pre-cancerous. The surgeons also removed 21 lymph nodes from her left side and some of her chest muscle. She began chemotherapy treatments two months later, at the Bow Valley Cancer Centre in Canmore. During her eight months of cancer treatment, she continued to work part-time and play golf. Despite terrible moments of fear and anxiety, she says she mostly tried to focus on the future.
“You have to believe you’re going to beat it,” she says. “I refused to believe it was going to get me. My first oncologist said my prognosis was not great, and I just said: you don’t know me. I am going to beat this. I’ll show you. I really believe that my recovery had a lot to do with that.”
Geleta initially knew very little about a disease that affects tens of thousands of Canadians every year. Now she is practically an expert. Approximately 65 Canadian mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and grandmothers are diagnosed with breast cancer every day. One in nine Canadian women will develop the disease during an average lifetime. Further, breast cancer affects men as well: in 2013, approximately 200 men were diagnosed with breast cancer. Just over 30 per cent of these men will not survive.
In her journey, Geleta says she met warriors of all kinds – from the medical staff who deal with cancer everyday, to survivors that mentor the sick, to the loved ones who give back by fundraising. By 2007, Geleta was well again and decided she needed to join their ranks. With her family and friends, she set to work to raise money for the Alberta Cancer Foundation’s Weekend to End Breast Cancer. Her fundraising group, Team Ta Tas, has organized an annual gala, sold everything from Easter baskets to lobster dinners, and has walked hundreds of kilometres to raise money for cancer research. Over the past eight years, Team Ta Tas has raised more than $357,000. Geleta is not done yet – she says her ultimate goal is to surpass $500,000.
FAMILY AFFAIR: From left, Danielle Murray, Barb Lambert and Sherry Guenette. The grand-mother, mother and daughter trio took the head shave challenge for a family member at a fundraising event in Whitecourt.
For survivors like Geleta, fundraising is a way of giving back to the people who saved their lives and a way of preventing their suffering from being passed on to others. For Barbara Lambert, Sherry Guenette and Danielle Murray, fundraising is a way of showing solidarity with a loved one. Their cousin Andrea Lambert has a rare form of breast cancer that grows quickly and persistently in the connective tissue of the breast, rather than the ducts. The young mother of two has undergone over 25 surgeries since she was diagnosed, and has recently begun another round of chemotherapy. In January, Andrea put up a post on Facebook saying her cancer had returned and she was going to “kick cancer’s ass.” That was Murray’s inspiration. Their team’s rallying cry, “Do Something” was actually her mother’s idea, says Murray, a yoga instructor and mom of two.
“I learned from Andrea to be courageous, no matter what, and embrace life,” says Murray. “She has such a spirit and joy about her, no matter what happens. It is so inspiring. How many times you just sit there wondering ‘what you can do?’ But everybody can do something.”
Murray began directing all the proceeds from her classes at the Santosa Hot Yoga and Wellness Center in Whitecourt to fundraising for the Alberta Cancer Foundation. The center agreed to waive their studio fees, and Murray has begun travelling to neighbouring communities to teach and collect more donations. By April, the Lambert women had raised more than $16,000. All three generations embraced the cause and contributed in their own way, most recently with a head shave event. Like Geleta, Murray says she can’t stop. With the final head shave event, they have raised more than $27,000 and she wants to continue. “As Andy is continuing her battle, we’re going to keep going,” she says.
The Foundation supports every single clinical trial that takes place in Alberta, and more than 200,000 donors allow the Foundation to invest in programs and research, launch more than 50 new research projects, and support hundreds of existing programs with ongoing funding. And it wasn’t that hard, says Murray. “I was just giving my time. If that can save someone an ounce of pain or help them through what they are going through, what we are doing is so small compared to the heroes that you meet every day.”
Many volunteers join the movement in honour of someone. Some, like volunteers Breanne Kraus and Kirsten Borle, just want to do what they can for future generations. Borle was one of hundreds of volunteers at Edmonton’s Bust a Move for Breast Health event this past March, a six-hour fitness and dance extravaganza that kept participants moving, sweating and dancing to raise funds for the Alberta Cancer Foundation in support of Cross Cancer Institute. Participants came in tutus, spandex and boas to jump around in a step class, or breathe deeply with a yoga master or capitalize on a free massage. In order to participate, teams needed to fundraise an average $1,000 per person.
Both women say the drive, energy and love shared among the participants was awe-inspiring. Best of all, Bust a Move raised more than $400,000 this year. “It’s a wonderful way to give back,” says Kraus. “The disease is so common it touches so many different lives. It’s also a wonderful event; it just felt so great to be a part of it.”
Movers And Shakers: This year’s Bust a Move for t Health raised more than $400,000, thanks to volunteers like Kirsten Borle (bottom left) and Breanne Kraus (centre).
Thanks in part to advances in research and early diagnosis, the rate of cancer deaths and diagnosis for Albertans continues to fall. Cancer screening, awareness campaigns and excellent medical care have contributed to decreasing death rates by one per cent until from 2002 to 2010, with mortality rates falling by 2.8 per cent every year from 2004 to 2010. But breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancers still account for 53 per cent of new diagnoses, and one in four Albertans will succumb to the disease. If something does turn up, Kathie Geleta’s advice is to take it one day at a time: “Stay positive,” she says. “Don’t cross bridges that haven’t been built, become knowledgeable but not excessively. Be your own health advocate in any situation. Do not let what you can’t do interfere with what you can do.”