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. 

Jun 19 2011

Rejecting the widow label

Susannah Dalfen is the kind of woman you fall in love with the minute you meet her.

In her moving and provocative essay, "Living Beyond Loss", Susannah Cohen Dalfen challenges the definition imposed on her by circumstance.

Warm and funny, perceptive and smart, she’s been a wonderful and supportive presence in my life since I moved to Ottawa nine years ago.

Two years ago our paths crossed unexpectedly while on holiday in Israel. Susannah had suffered the tremendous loss of her dear husband Chuck earlier that year and spoke about the impact of that, not only on how she felt, but on how others treated her. I was moved and provoked by her observations and delighted when she agreed to record some of them to contribute to the book. Called “Living Beyond Loss”, Susannah’s essay appears in the Surviving section of the collection.

Last week my friend Amanda told me that her mother-in-law, who lost her own husband last year, called her to express  appreciation for the gift of I Feel Great About My Hands. But in trying to communicate the great resonance she experienced in reading both the book in general and Susannah’s essay in particular, Amanda’s mother-in-law became overcome with emotion and was unable to speak.

Eager to read the book that’s had such an impact on both her husband’s mother and her own, Amanda nevertheless confessed that neither women would lend her the copies she’d given them: they’ve both become too attached to their books. (An inveterate under-liner myself, I’m guessing they’ve maybe made margin notes that are too personal to share.)