It’s a Wonderful Life

Most of you reading this blog will be familiar with one of the first level treatments for breast cancer affectionately known as the Red Devil. This is a chemotherapy drug that is so toxic that it must be slowly infused by an oncology nurse wearing the equivalent of a hazmat suit because if it comes in contact with the skin it can cause some pretty significant damage.  It’s the one that means that the cancer patient needs to double flush and use separate face cloths in the days following infusion because they are toxic to the people who are living with them.

Oh yeah, it’s a treat.

From our experience, the Red Devil is usually given in four doses, either two or three weeks apart, and the side effects are cumulative meaning that how you feel after dose one is worse after dose two, worse again after dose three, and then… there is four.

In the classic holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the main character George is hit by one calamity after another and finds himself standing on a bridge on Christmas Eve ready to end things when a Guardian Angel comes forward to stop him and leads him on a journey through the life his loved ones would have lived had he never existed. When George sees the difference he has made, his perspective changes and he is happy to go back to the life he was prepared to leave behind.   

In the days following the Red Devil dose four, my daughter was on that bridge.  

I knew it was bad, but it was far after the fact that she acknowledged how bad, how she didn’t think she would be able to go on if she had to continue to feel the way she felt after that last Red Devil dose, if the next chemotherapy drug in her regimen was twelve weeks of that. When I asked her who she kept going for, she told me that was a really tough one to respond to because in order to get to the answer she’d have to put herself back there and she was still not able to do that, but if she were to guess she would say that at the time she probably wasn’t doing it for her. If she thinks of where she is now, the “present” her would have been able to say to the “then” her, “No keep going, this is going to be worth it.”  But at the time, she didn’t think she felt that hope anymore and that what she was grasping onto was the people around her that she wanted to stick around for.

Christmas is our family’s favourite time of the year. For many years the only time we were all in the same place was over the holidays and it was often the only time my children would be able to spend time with their dad because of his travel schedule, so it has taken on a special significance for all of us. If Adrienne made the decision not to stick around for me, for her family, I would like to think that if a Guardian Angel had been able to hold her hand and show her what Christmas would be like without her if it would have helped her choose to continue. How I would unpack the Christmas decorations and tenderly run my fingers over the ornaments she made that I have carefully stored since she was in kindergarten, tears streaming down my face. How her sisters would put on their matching pajamas and come downstairs remembering longingly that a third pair was bought one year. How her dad would pull out the pair of funny Christmas wine goblets and have his heart stop because his would be the only one in use. How we would all try very, very hard to recapture the magic, but never quite get there because a part of our hearts was missing.

There are too many mothers, fathers, siblings, partners, children and friends missing parts of their hearts because of breast cancer. There are too many empty chairs at the table. I know I am beyond lucky that the Red Devil, as bad as it was, means that when I am filling stockings, I am not setting one aside. I am exceedingly grateful that Adrienne was able to look outside herself for a reason to keep going. I am full of admiration for women who try everything even if everything keeps failing them regardless of who they do it for. And I am humbly respectful of those who say no more because Adrienne has given me a glimpse into what cancer treatment actually costs.

In the last year, two women I cared for got their wings. One spent the two years following her diagnosis chasing a treatment that would work, and the other chose to say enough.  

As I watch my daughter clink goblets with her dad this year and smile at the ridiculousness of three adult women wearing matching pajamas while I hang the ornaments on the tree, I will remember those two women with so much love. And I will look over at my child and know beyond any shadow of a doubt that at least for now it is, indeed, a wonderful life.


Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California.  She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure.  When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed!  Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Read more from Debbie on her experience as a caregiver to her daughter, here.

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