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.”