Calling all cancer survivors

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Christine Phillips, a Victoria-based hairdresser with a short, cropped ’do and a penchant for pink, will be participating in the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay For Life 2012 on June 23. This is nothing new for Phillips — she has participated in the annual 12-hour relay event six times before, most recently in 2011. She got involved because her best friend’s mom fought and won a battle against cancer.

By 2011, Phillips knew the ropes. She knew that each relay team keeps one member on the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre track at all times from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning. She knew that each team member is asked to raise at least $100 before the relay. She knew that the relay would be punctuated by three ceremonies: a luminary ceremony where lanterns are lit at twilight, a “fight back” ceremony to close the relay and a survivors’ victory lap where people who have beaten cancer march around the track.

She didn’t know in June of 2011 that she would march in the survivors’ victory lap one year later.

“Last year when we were at the relay, little did I know . . . I actually had cancer,” says Phillips. “About three weeks later, I was diagnosed.” Phillips discovered she had stage three endometrial cancer. She began a rigorous regimen of radiation and chemotherapy at the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Island Centre, adjacent to the Royal Jubilee Hospital. The volumes of chemicals she took were so great that, when the Agency got a new chemotherapy machine, the device wouldn’t allow her to take her usual dosage.

“Someone had to override the computer,” she says.

As a hairdresser and self-confessed “girly girl,” Phillips was devastated by her hair loss after her first treatment. She decided to shave it all off.

“That’s when I felt like I was taking control — when I actually shaved my hair off,” she says.

The intense treatments paid off. Phillips received a clean bill of health in early 2012.

“My doctor said, ‘If people ask if you’re a survivor, tell them that you had cancer and that it’s gone — not that you’re a survivor.’ ” But Phillips is proud to wear the badge of survivor, and she, along with the organizers of Relay for Life, is encouraging other survivors to come forward as guests of honour at this year’s event.

Jennifer Dalton is the survivor development chair for Relay for Life Victoria. Last year’s Victoria Relay raised more than $90 000 ($55 million was raised by relays across Canada). Dalton says that survivors are integral to Relay for Life, which is the Canadian Cancer Society’s largest fundraiser.

“They are really the heart of our event. They symbolize the fact that what we’re doing is making a difference,” says Dalton. Survivors are invited to a special reception before the relay begins where they will receive a gift bag, food and a t-shirt. Survivors can register online at relaybc.ca, but are also welcome to show up on the day of the event free of charge.

“Last year, I had only 28 survivors. This year, I’m trying to get 50,” says Dalton.

Phillips says it’s important for survivors to come forward because battling cancer can be an isolating experience.

“Personally, I lost friends. I was seeing a guy and he broke up with me the day I told him. Said he couldn’t do it,” she says. “It’s a hard balance, because you really do want to be left alone, but other times you want someone there but you don’t want to ask, and you’re too sick to ask for help. Just to get you little things. To help. Just to come over and sit with you. It’s tough.”

Phillips says the funds raised for the Canadian Cancer Society are well spent.

“It’s not just research. The Relay also helps people get to and from their treatments. It helps with lodging.”

To provide a clearer idea of where some of the money goes, Phillips gave me a tour of the B.C. Cancer Agency’s Vancouver Island Centre — ground zero for her battle with cancer. Our first stop was at a linear accelerator, the machine used for radiation treatment.

“I think of it as a Kitchen-Aid mixer,” said Liz Stevenson, a radiation therapist at the B.C. Cancer Agency. The machine does look like a giant food processor, sans beaters. And instead of a bowl, a human-sized table stands underneath it. Red lasers are projected onto the patient lying on the table. Each laser must intersect with a tiny blue point tattooed onto the patient’s body. This ensures the radiation is hitting the right area.

“We do the tattoos by hand,” said Stevenson.

As we left the radiation department, Stevenson noticed a rogue price tag stuck to Phillips’s sweater.
“I’m $19.99,” said Phillips.

“No. You’re priceless,” said Stevenson.

In the chemotherapy room, people sat quietly in reclining chairs with intravenouses trailing out of their arms. Phillips pointed to an empty chair near a window. “I always picked the centre chair. I could people-watch.”
When asked how participating in Relay for Life as a survivor would differ from her previous experiences, Phillips said, “I’m going to be a big baby. I’ll be crying for sure. I feel like this year I’ve just really gone headfirst, gung-ho. I want to kick cancer’s ass, you know what I mean?”

Her black t-shirt was emblazoned with the words “Fuck Cancer.” Many of the staff at the Agency complimented her on it. Many more waved and said, “Your hair looks great, Christine.”

Any cancer survivors who would like to participate in the victory lap at Relay For Life can contact Jennifer Dalton: jendalton@shaw.ca; 250-883-7826.

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