By: Karen Durrie
When asked how he met buffy, his wife of 31 years, Bob Ainsworth brightens and chuckles, weighing whether he should gloss over it for publication, or just say what he usually says.
“I normally say we met drunk in an elevator,” he laughs. The two were undergraduates at the University of Calgary, volunteering to do orientation workshops for new students. “We’d come in one Friday night for a training session and later ended up drunk in an elevator. And, two years later, we were married.”
The Ainsworths spent several years working at schools in rural Alberta — Buffy became an elementary school teacher and Bob a school principal — and, for a time, ran a tree farm together. They welcomed three children — Heather, Jill and Stephen — before returning to Calgary in 1996, where Bob shifted careers to financial planning.
A year and a half later, in January 1998, the family’s lives took a staggering turn when Buffy was diagnosed with thymoma — cancer of the thymus gland — at age 45. “Thymoma is so rare that the statistic I heard is about 12 people in Western Canada get thymoma in a year,” says Bob. “So nobody forms a foundation for thymoma research.”
While doctors were still in the process of pinpointing a diagnosis for Buffy, Bob observed Dr. Don Morris, a world leader in thymoma research, walking the hospital halls, agitated. “I said, ‘So, what are you bent and twisted about?’ And he says, ‘I get frustrated with the lack of funding for rare cancers.’”
Morris’ budget was nearly depleted for a meta-analysis study whose data needed to be repeatedly run through a super-computer. Ainsworth immediately wrote a cheque for $500 to be directed to Morris’ research fund.
For nearly 10 years, Buffy underwent radiation, rounds of chemotherapy, lengthy ICU stints and surgery at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. She would experience healthier years, and years when she struggled. When Buffy was well, the family found joy in travel. A lifelong writer and passionate poet, Buffy was prolific with quirky, insightful and poignant poems. During the last months of her life, pen and paper became vital for communication since a tracheotomy rendered her unable to speak. Buffy died in Bob’s arms Dec. 27, 2006, at the age of 54.
After Buffy’s long ICU stints, Bob joined an early version of the Patient and Family Advisory Committee at Foothills Hospital. Following Buffy’s death, he volunteered with the Ride to Conquer Cancer (now called Tour Alberta for Cancer) as a team captain and organizer. With a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease last year, he has “retired his bike to the rafters.” Bob remains a dedicated donor to several personal causes, including targeted cancer research through the Alberta Cancer Foundation. He donates up to $12,000 a year to charities, much of it to cancer as a lump-sum donation.
“I’d like people to understand that the only way we’re ever going to deal with cancer is through research,” he says. Bob’s financial-planning hat comes out to assert firmly that more people should understand the tax advantages of donating.
Bob is now retired and enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren. Heather became a geophysicist; Jill obtained a PhD in biomedical statistics from McGill; and Stephen attended the University of Lethbridge for a spell.
“My kids had a rotten childhood, with the oldest feeling she had to step up and take the parenting role,” he says. “Poor Stephen had the rockiest ‘cancer life’ because he was in kindergarten when his mother was diagnosed, and in Grade 9 when she died. He only ever knew her ill.”
In the last year of her life, Buffy spent time planning her first poetry book, leaving notes to guide its completion. In 2007, Buffy’s 127-page book, Encircled, was published.