How Sher Harkins Owns Cancer

Sher Harkins would make this daily walk from her chemo appointments back to work on the new Cancer Centre at Foothills Medical Centre. Leah Hennel / AHS

For years, Sher Harkins had a little voice in the back of her head wondering not “if” — but “when” — she would get cancer. She’s no stranger to cancer and has lost many loved ones, including both her parents (dad in 1995, mom in 2017).

In April 2018, Harkins had just started her new job as an electrical material purchaser for the new Calgary Cancer Centre, when her doctor called to say: “We found cancer”.

“Those words go through you, and it echoes. It really is like something out of a movie. I sat there, stunned. I cried a little.”

As she put the date of her oncologist appointment in her calendar, she told herself: “I guess I have a fight ahead of me.”

Ultimately, that appointment led to a journey of treatments which included five rounds of weekly chemo, 25 consecutive days of radiation, followed by three weekly doses of brachytherapy (a type of internal radiation therapy in which seeds, ribbons or capsules that contain a radiation source are placed in your body, in or near a tumour).

Harkins says she felt incredibly grateful to work at the new Calgary Cancer Centre construction site during this difficult time. “Could I be in a better place to do all this? I mean really. How blessed am I? I work right here. It was spring, the sun was shining, birds were singing — and I am right here. So, I dug my heels in and went about kicking cancer’s butt!”

She worked every day through most of her treatments, and also walked a quick-paced 10 minutes over to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.

“Admittedly, some days, I walked slower and the pep in my step wasn’t what it started off at. In the end, I couldn’t work for the final three weeks for my brachytherapy. It took just too much out of me,” she says.

“I didn’t tell a lot of people at work what was going on, but the people who did know told me that if they didn’t know I had cancer, they would have had no idea. I took that as a great compliment to my strength and tenacity.”

Harkins takes pride in her role in the cancer centre, taking every opportunity to share with her doctors, nurses, and radiologists that she was purchasing all the electrical material for the new building.  In the face of months of treatments, her passion as a purchaser remained strong.

“I’ve watched and participated first-hand in building this new world-class cancer centre. Now when I look at this big, beautiful building, I see me. I see my journey. I see all of us survivors.

“I see all the construction workers who came to work every single day, rain or shine, freezing cold, extreme heat, the smoky summers and through COVID-19. They are showing up every day and getting it done, for all of us.

Harkins adds: “I know that if I am ever a patient in the Calgary Cancer Centre, I’ll be in the best place, with the best people, receiving the best care.”


This article was written by Jennifer Green and originally published at albertahealthservices.ca

How Chris Kucharski owns cancer

A campaign of this magnitude doesn’t happen without the support and dedication of our community. The OWN.CANCER campaign cabinet is made up of passionate Calgarians who are champions for improved cancer research, treatment and care in our province. Through their advocacy, donations and guidance, we’re closer to reaching our $250 million fundraising goal in support of the Calgary Cancer Centre. In this series, we’re sitting down with our cabinet members to learn what the OWN.CANCER campaign means to them and the impact it will have on Albertans facing cancer.

Chris Kucharski has had a thriving career as a telecommunications professional and executive, having retired as Shaw’s President – Consumer in 2018. Since then he has split his time in between startup investing in the tech space along with various philanthropic endeavours, including serving as Board Trustee for the Alberta Cancer Foundation since 2019. Staying active and healthy remains a personal priority, along with spending time with family, creative pursuits, and consulting work. Chris also holds degrees from the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University.

What inspires you to OWN.CANCER?

Certainly nobody wants to hear the words that you have been diagnosed with cancer. Your world is rocked and the mental challenge can become nearly as big as the physical one. When I was diagnosed, my core motivation became about the ones I love – living longer to watch my kids become adults and go through life’s milestones, having new experiences, or just enjoying the simple moments of hanging out together. I’m not always successful at it, but I think I am happiest when I keep gratitude top of mind, and the most important things front and centre. So for me, it comes back to what the core mission of  the Alberta Cancer Foundation is all about – creating more moments for Albertans facing cancer, and the reality of how precious our time here really is.

 

For me, it comes back to what the core mission of  the Alberta Cancer Foundation is all about – creating more moments for Albertans facing cancer, and the reality of how precious our time here really is.

– Chris Kucharski

 

Why was it important to you to volunteer and contribute to this campaign?

I’m a born and raised Albertan, and have lived in Calgary for over a decade.  Making the effort to give back to the community that has been so good to me has become something that matters deeply – and especially so after having gone through my own cancer experience.  I can’t properly convey the gratitude I have for the incredible health care professionals that we rely on here in Calgary and I feel really fortunate to have been under their care at Foothills/Tom Baker. I live nearby the new cancer centre and every time I pass it, I feel so enthused about what this means for our city and community – it’s truly exciting to be a part of.

How do you believe this campaign and the Calgary Cancer Centre will impact Albertans facing cancer?

This really is a game changer for Calgary, and Alberta. When it opens in fall 2023, it will be the largest comprehensive cancer centre in Canada, and a major asset for Calgary and the province. Meaning not just a beautiful facility, but one that will gather the right people/talent with the right tools to drive research and transform cancer care and treatment. That includes precision care, where treatments can be planned and coordinated around each individuals physical, mental and social needs. Regrettably, we know that nearly everyone is affected by cancer in their lifetime, whether themselves or someone they love. Helping the new centre realize its potential to improve care and outcomes is therefore extremely motivating, and I’m certain that’s something all of us can rally behind.

At the Calgary Cancer Centre, we’re bringing together researchers, medical teams, prevention experts, patients and families in ways never before possible. Help make an impact for patients like Ashley, and donate to the OWN.CANCER campaign today.

Why Canada Life supports the OWN.CANCER Campaign

In support of the Calgary Cancer Centre, Canada Life has made a generous donation to the OWN.CANCER Campaign.  

  

A campaign of this magnitude doesn’t happen without the support and dedication of our community. Canada Life is passionate about giving back to the community and Albertans facing cancer, and they have generously donated to the OWN.CANCER campaign in support of the Calgary Cancer Centre opening in 2023. Through their help, we’re closer to reaching our $250 million fundraising goal in supporting the Calgary Cancer Centre.  

  

Canada Life is committed to improving Canadians’ financial, physical, and mental well-being. A longstanding supporter of the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Canada Life is proud to contribute to the redevelopment and expansion of the new treatment centre called the Calgary Cancer Centre. 

  

“We’re proud to support OWN.CANCER because we believe in the power of research and expertise. We know that health diagnosis and treatment play a vital part in creating strong and healthy communities. We’re inspired to work with forward-thinking, collaborative organizations committed to creating positive change for the well-being of all Canadians.” 

  

 Beyond the campaign, Canada Life also supports the rehabilitation program designed to help Canadians regain control in many aspects of their lives during and after treatment.  

 

“At Canada Life, we believe we can work together to make a lasting change for the better – we want to help the Calgary Cancer Centre put an end to cancer.” 

 

 

How Sarah Geddes owns cancer

Sarah Geddes from Calgary is a wife and mother of two. She is the founder of a modern marketing agency, Press + Post and works on marketing, PR, social and digital campaigns for a fantastic roster of lifestyle brands. 

“To sum it all up, I’ve curated the best life I could imagine for myself and my family.  And then there was cancer,” she says.

Here, she shares her cancer journey and what OWN.CANCER means to her. 

“I received my malignant diagnosis in February 2018.  I recall the day vividly as it was the day before Valentine’s Day, February 13th.  I was standing at my son’s hockey practice when I received the call, and the next thing I remember was being picked up off the floor.  

To back up…

During a routine dental x-ray in December 2017 (which I only did as my benefits hadn’t been used, so why not?), a “cyst” was detected around my upper jaw bone that was significant enough for them to schedule a full head scan the following day.  I had no symptoms that would have been concerning, and the only thing I can recall is feeling like I had a clogged sinus.  I had a cold for a month, so it didn’t seem suspicious. They scheduled me for a biopsy surgery a few days before Christmas following the head scan. Given the holidays, I figured it would be a few weeks before receiving the biopsy results, so I went on vacation and tried to enjoy myself with my family with everything parked in the back of my mind.

In early January, when we returned, I visited my surgeon for a follow-up on the biopsy, and he let me know the specimen was benign.  He also indicated those who looked at the results had not seen a specimen like that before and asked if I’d be okay with him trying to learn more. It turns out I would owe my life to his curiosity.  After a couple of tests, I got the fateful call on February 13th. “Are you sitting down?”  The results were false. “You have cancer.” I blacked out for a few minutes, but it wasn’t the most surreal part.  He mentioned having a colleague, Dr. Graham Cobb, who had just performed the first surgery of its kind in Alberta for the cancer I had, with positive results. My surgeon had spoken to him about my case and that Dr. Cobb was willing to meet with me the following day (Valentine’s Day) to see if I was a candidate to be the second patient in Alberta to have the surgery.  That’s not the surreal part.  The hair on your neck part is that I went to high school with Graham (or Dr. Cobb) in North Bay, Ontario and had no idea he was out here.  

Steve and I spent our Valentine’s Day meeting with Graham, who described this ‘jaw in a day’ surgery.  It was beyond what I could wrap my mind around, but I had full trust in him and the system and was so grateful at that moment to live in Canada and have access to such amazing care.  I cannot lie, the surgery(s) he described was a bit much to digest, and all I could think about was, “how did anyone sign up to be the first to do this?’. In simple terms, my cancer had lodged itself in my jaw bone, so to account for margins, my upper right jaw, teeth and hard palette would all need to be completely removed. No big deal, we’ll take your fibula bone, recreate a jaw bone from that, use your leg tissue around the bone to recreate tissue on the roof of your mouth to replace your hard palette and then we’ll do a skin graft from your thigh to replace the lost skin in your lower leg.  And we’ll run a few blood vessels from your neck to give blood supply to the new palette tissue (insert head blown emoji).  And when the healing is all over, we’ll create a prosthetic implant for you, so you have teeth.”  Can you imagine being the first patient or surgeon to attempt that? 

My initial surgery came on quickly and required three talented surgeons:  maxillofacial, head/neck/throat, and a plastic surgeon.  The initial surgery was 17 hours long. Recovery in the ICU and beyond was not fun as I had to relearn how to speak (I had no teeth for multiple months and a large mass of tissue clogging my mouth), swallow and walk.  I was on a liquid and then blended diet for three months and visited the wound clinic to deal with the leg graft and possible infection every three days.  I was not prepared for the nerve pain in my leg, foot or face.  It was excruciating.  And then I got used to it, and it’s now my new normal. 

Now on the other side, given the rarity of my condition, I’m incredibly fortunate to have been a test case for this type of surgery to determine new protocols for head and neck cancers moving forward.  Since then, I’ve had four additional minor surgeries (minor in terms of surgical length, not healing), and while I will never be the same, I can say I am as close to it as humanly possible.  I owe my life to Dr. Graham Cobb and the team he assembled, and I am so happy I bugged him to pay attention in biology class in high school.


No day, hour or minute is the same regarding how I feel about cancer.  Sometimes my gratitude for being alive is overwhelming, and sometimes my fear of losing that feeling is unbearable. What’s consistent is a shift towards gratitude and empathy and not wanting to forget what I have overcome and why I fought as hard as I did…my family.  My kids learned life isn’t always easy. Sometimes things are complex, sometimes you win, and sadly, sometimes you lose.  But you show up.  And you be grateful, always.   

I owe my life to the innovative care I received from my team. Still, when I look towards the future of cancer care and what the Calgary Cancer Centre can facilitate, I see a 360 approach to cancer care: mind, body, and community. We need as much innovation in the physical treatment of cancer as we do the mental, familial and societal outcomes. 

Cancer is a club you really don’t want to join, but if you have no choice, the membership dues should include being able to live your best life possible for as long as you can.  That means feeling empowered to take care of your mind, body, and community. 

I truly see the opportunity for this centre to shine as an innovator in complete cancer care.  We can’t control everything, but we can own our journey.  I get to tell cancer how it can deal with me.  Not the other way around.”

Sarah is grateful for the care she received and knows that with the Calgary Cancer Centre, those facing cancer in the future will have access to world-leading cancer care, research and education. She thanks the donors who support the OWN.CANCER campaign from the bottom of her heart.

“Your donations not only bring outcomes but also inspire. You create hope and optimism and inspire others to do the same.  And you make survivors feel seen.  Finding a cure is the ultimate goal, but making the journey more bearable for those who hold hands on this path is equally noble and such a gift and legacy.”

At the Calgary Cancer Centre, we’re bringing together researchers, medical teams, prevention experts, patients and families in ways never before possible. Help make an impact for patients like Sarah, and donate to the OWN.CANCER campaign today.

How Ashley Yoisten owns cancer

In January 2020, Ashley Yoisten, a young mother of two, didn’t expect her life to change forever.

 

When the now 35-year-old began to notice irritation in her breast, she consulted her family doctor, who suggested she go for a mammogram. Although they were hesitant to do a mammogram given her young age, they decided that it was the best thing to do given her symptoms.

When her mammogram results returned as calcified breast tissue, she was told not to worry. However, this didn’t sit right with her doctor, who referred her to a surgeon.

“I never thought that it would be cancer at any point in time.I truly just felt that it was a cyst or a blockage of some sort,” said Ashley.

From there, Ashley received an ultrasound as directed by her surgeon, where the worry struck. Immediately after, the doctor and nurse came into the room to perform an urgent biopsy. They later determined that there was, in fact, a bigger problem.

“I remember getting on the table and asking them, “Am I allowed to go back to work after this?” they looked at me like I had five eyes and said, no, you can’t, you need to take some days off,” said Ashley.

Not long after, Ashley went back to the surgeon’s office when she found out that she had a Carcinoma in situ. After a second biopsy, it was determined that Ashley was HER2+, grade 3, stage 3A. While waiting to define the likely next steps, Ashley got even more heartbreaking news – her mom was also diagnosed with cancer.

“It was alarming to realize that it could be genetic and that my sister could be at risk as well or potentially my kids or my nieces and nephews,” said Ashley.

From there, she decided to move forward with a double mastectomy, scheduled for October 28. After receiving the pathology report, she found out that she had four other tumours within her breast wall and Paget’s disease, cancer in the nipple. Her cancer originated from her nipple and spread from there, affecting her lymph nodes.

“I believe very highly in the power of positive thinking, and so when it was all seeming to fall apart, I just tried to keep a positive attitude as much as I could about it.,” said Ashley. If I was having a bad day or having a moment… I did allow myself the space to feel those feelings… but I just tried not to stay within that mindset for very long.”

Throughout her journey, Ashley thought of her late step-father, who also faced cancer. Ashley recalls his positivity and outlook on life, especially when he was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Unfortunately, her step-father’s cancer was very aggressive and was inoperable. However, she believes that his positive outlook made him outlast his 18-month life expectancy, turning it into four more years of memories.

“I always admired that strength. So when I got my diagnosis, I just remembered that and just wanted to be as positive as I possibly could be no matter how hard it was.”

Along with her step-father’s optimism, Ashley is grateful to her family and friends. To say that going through cancer treatment during a pandemic is easy would be a lie. Ashley was fortunate enough to have a close group of friends and family safely join her cohort, where she could be with them in person.

Ashley, an independent person, who rarely asked for help, leaned on the kindness and support of her family and loved ones who supported her through every step of this journey.

“There was so much love and support for me, my kids and my husband. They were there to catch us and support us for everything we needed,” said Ashley.

Ashley is also incredibly thankful for her loving husband, Matt and resilient sons, Mason (9) and Nixon (6), who supported her, cared for her and loved her endlessly. With her sons being so young, Ashley still needed to be there for them in any way she could.

“I did my best to be as honest with them as I could about my journey and tried to include them where I could,” said Ashley. “I want them to understand that cancer is a part of life. It happens.”

Ashley completed her treatment in April, doing 25 rounds of radiation and even ending up in the ICU at one point. It was a difficult three months of treatment. Unfortunately, not long after, in May, Ashley and her family got in an accident on their way to a family camping trip, which took a toll on her health. Happily, she is starting to feel like herself again. She allowed herself time to heal and spent lots of time working hard on getting better and back to a place where she felt “normal” again.

“I did all the work; I told my care teams and physios that “I will be your best patient if you just tell me what I have to do, I will do it” because I need to get back to where I was or come back better,” said Ashley.

Recovery was not what Ashely initially expected. She thought she would feel better as soon as her treatment was complete, but she had to learn to be patient and listen to her body. She focused on fueling it with nutrition and respecting it every step of the way, taking the time to focus on not just her body but also her mind.

“Be kind and gentle on yourself and allow yourself that space to heal. This is your journey and no one else,” said Ashley.

Ashley took the time out of her treatments and recovery to share her story on social media. For her, it was an outlet to share with family and friends, but in turn, she found a community going through the same thing. Her journey has and continues to be a massive inspiration to many.

“I found that sharing this helps them know that they can do it too… When they tell me my story brings them comfort – it brings me joy that I can help someone,” said Ashley.

You can continue to follow her story on Instagram.

At the Calgary Cancer Centre, we’re bringing together researchers, medical teams, prevention experts, patients and families in ways never before possible. Help make an impact for patients like Ashley, and donate to the OWN.CANCER campaign today.