Lisa flew from Montreal to Calgary for the Kicking Cancer’s Ass: Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC) Conference, October 17-20, 2008, near Lake Louise, Alberta. She had attended a YACC retreat the year before and promised herself she would see the Rockies and her retreat friends one more time, before she died.
Lisa had lived well for several years after her diagnosis of cancer in 2000 at age 29, even with metastases, but two months before the conference her health declined significantly. She asked her brother Peter to accompany her to Lake Louise, as her caregiver, and they embarked on a four-day journey that unbeknownst to them both would be the last four days of Lisa’s life.
Over thirty young adults (aged twenty-one to thirty eight) gathered from cities and small towns across Canada. All the participants had been diagnosed with cancer; some were in remission, and others lived with recurrences of their cancers. They wanted to connect with others in their age group who understood what it was like to have life stopped in its tracks, to have their independence thwarted by the sudden loss of work and finances, and to lose friends and partners who couldn't handle the stress. I was honoured to have been invited on the facilitator team.
When Lisa arrived at the hotel late in the evening of October 17th, Peter had to lift her from her wheelchair into bed. He was concerned the journey had been too much for her.
“Come on in,” he called out, responding to my knock at their door. He was sitting on the bed beside Lisa, who was curled up under a duvet with two wool blankets piled on top. “Lisa, there are two nurses here to check on you,” he whispered in her ear.
“Mmmm,” Lisa mumbled, her eyes closed. Jenn, the other oncology nurse on the team, took Lisa’s vital signs, which were normal, and then asked Peter about the journey. She had slept most of the 5-hour flight, just waking for sips of water, a few bites of a sandwich, and her pain medication. We urged Peter to call us in the night if anything changed and reassured him we'd call an ambulance if necessary.
When I climbed into bed that night I wondered why Lisa had come to the conference, being as ill as she was. I couldn’t imagine she'd make it to the group session the next morning, let alone benefit from it and I thought about how scary it would be for the other young adults having someone so ill in the group. I worried about how we were going to get Lisa back home safely, or whether she'd get home at all. My sleep was fitful but there was no distress call from Peter.
In the morning, Lisa managed some toast and half a boiled egg, got dressed with Peter’s help, and decided to attend the first group session of the conference. Wrapped in blankets in her wheelchair, Lisa listened intently to each person tell their stories about the devastating effects cancer had had on their lives, and the lessons learned from the enormous challenges faced at such a young age. Lisa smiled contentedly throughout the group discussion, as though her journey across the country had been made just for those moments of heartfelt sharing with her cancer companions.
When it came to Lisa’s turn to speak, she spoke quietly, “Thank you,” she said. “I knew I needed to be here with you all. You are my hope and inspiration, no matter what happens.”
Lisa spent the rest of the day and evening in bed.
By the following morning she had become mentally confused and her back pain was worse. Peter called her doctor in Montreal who thought it was advisable for them to come home if the airline would accept her onto the flight. We contacted a palliative care doctor in Calgary who offered to assess Lisa before the flight, to determine whether she was safe to travel.
Her group of friends stood arm-in-arm outside the hotel in the crisp, bright sunshine, to bid Lisa and Peter farewell, attempting to smile through their tears. Lisa radiated a peaceful acceptance of what lay ahead, her eyes reaching to connect with each face, one by one, her pale lips stretching into a wan smile.
“Que Sera, Sera. Whatever will be, will be!” she said from the car window, as she settled into the back seat of their rental car, for the two-hour drive to Calgary.
Lisa received the green light from the doctor to travel, and the airline agreed to take her. She died at home, less than 24 hours later, on October 20th, the same day the conference in Lake Louise came to a close. I believe the tenacity of Lisa's spirit gave her the strength to follow the call to travel 3700 kilometres to be with people her age who understood her, in the shelter of her brother, and the vast Rocky Mountains.