Jul 13 2011

Betty Ford, Sharon Carstairs great examples of power of voice

I read the news about Betty Ford’s death at 93 the same day as I learned a good friend had developed breast cancer. A passing reference in the obituary provided unexpected comfort regarding my friend’s unfortunate diagnosis.

Ford – an enormously respected former first lady who triumphed over both cancer and addiction, while challenging taboos with her characteristic candidness – went on to live another three decades after her mastectomy.

I don’t know what the survival rate was in 1974 when she had her surgery, but I’m certain that the numbers have improved since. According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, women diagnosed today in this country have an 87% likelihood of living for at least five years. I take additional solace from having watched three close friends emerge resolutely healthy from their own battles with breast cancer in recent years. 

But I also think about some of the observations shared by Vancouver physician, Gabor Maté, who wrote about the implications of the mind-body connection in his 2004 best seller, When the Body Says No. Featuring scientific research and case studies alongside Maté’s own experiences in palliative care, the book devotes an entire chapter to the relationship of emotional stress to cancer. It’s been years since I read it and my copy now sits on the bookshelf of a friend, but I remember being struck by his message about the importance of acknowledging and voicing one’s feelings.

Sharon Carstairs using her inimitable voice last year (screen shot from CBC site)

In her moving contribution to I Feel Great About My Hands, former leader of the Manitoba Liberal party and current senator Sharon Carstairs writes explicitly about this. Indeed, her piece is called “Finding My Voice.” In it she recounts the abuse she experienced as a child from a trusted family friend, and how terrified she was of the potential consequences of speaking up and accusing him.

It was several years later – when my younger sister caught the eye of my abuser – that I found my voice and spoke out. I told the abuser that if he did not stop, I would tell. The abuse stopped. Unable to find my voice to protect myself, I found it to protect my sister. That act of speaking out was a pivotal moment in my life. I learned that I need not be silenced by my fears, I learned that by using my voice, I had the power to seek change.

…Which she’s been doing ever since, arguing passionately for constitutional, health care and criminal justice reform.