London, Loss, Milestones, Mothering and Why?

May 4, 2024

I’m writing this in a cramped plane seat on my way to London. I’ll be happily re-uniting with my daughter there and this is the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other ever. I’m positively bursting to see her. But it has been quite a week, and my brain is in an “everything everywhere all at once” situation. I doubt I will sleep much so I will try to hash things out on my keyboard. 

As always, there’s been lots that we’ve been seeing, hearing, feeling on the ground with the breast cancer community through our support and advocacy. And then I have some extra personal life stuff I’m noticing too. 

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago and I’m now the same age that my mom was when she passed away from metastatic breast cancer. I’m on my way to meet my daughter, Annie, who has been on exchange in London this semester. At 20, she is just shy of the age I was when I became a motherless daughter. I have such strange feelings about this odd milestone. Happy but also sad.  

Annie’s my only child, and she’s a gem of a gem. I can’t wait to mooch around London with her, checking out the favourite hoods and haunts she’s discovered the past few months. Then we’re going out into the countryside for our immersion into Brontës and Austen vibes with plans to visit the grand houses used in the various period films we love as well as channel the heroines by romping about on the moor. This trip is the exact type of thing I ache at not having been able to do with my own mom. I am so grateful to be doing this as a mom myself. And I so, so wish we could have been sharing the trip as a three generations trio. 

While excited about my vacation, I’m also still reeling right now from the devastating death of Kim Angell just two days ago. Kim dying of MBC on the heels of Diane DiCesare dying of MBC on the heels of countless others, both those we know and those we unfortunately don’t, dying of MBC. I spoke to Diane’s husband on the phone earlier this week. He called asking about ways he could help keep Diane’s efforts going. He shared how Diane had been excited about the possibility of being a mentor for our new Mentoring Matters program and he’d like to raise funds for the program and other activities in her honour. My heart broke for him, but I sensed that this purpose and goal was helping him, and it was just a lovely call. The next day, we got news that Kim had passed. 

Meanwhile in the background of these tragic losses are the blaring, clickbait-y media headlines. Headlines and one-dimensional stories that seem to have many thinking that MBC would be solved just by changing our screening age. Oh, how I wish it were that simple. 

Recently, I have been hearing that oncologists are seeing more very young women, even teens, in their breast cancer clinics. And not only is breast cancer increasing in younger women, so is colon cancer (in an even more staggering way). This has been something floating in and out of my mind for a year and a half. We’ve come so far in our knowledge and understanding of breast cancer and how to treat it since my mom was diagnosed. So much has changed for the better. But other things have changed too and not for the better. Rates of breast cancer in young women are rising. This is truly disturbing.

While billions are spent on cancer detection and treatment pretty much zero funding is invested into looking upstream to see why breast cancer is increasing in young women. And why cancer is increasing in young people. Theories range from changes in our diet and lifestyle to the microplastics that are now in our drinking water and food supply chain. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about the latest blog post from Debbie, which hit me hard. I got chills when I read it the first time. She called out the why. Or rather the lack of understanding we have of the why. I used to worry breast cancer meant my daughter was fated to be a motherless daughter like me. I now find myself more worried about the daughters — the young women who are being diagnosed younger and younger. 

The urgent unmet needs of the breast cancer community keep us extremely busy. The need for community, for professional and peer support, for access to better treatment and care. The needs are all so intense and I feel this year we are just hitting our post-pandemic stride in terms of managing all that we do while keeping our own sustainability (including emotional sustainability) in mind. But as a systems thinker, I’m determined to start carving out more time for the what the hell is happening upstream part. Everything is interconnected. As we support and advocate for what is happening now, we must think to the future. Something must be done. 

Adding a few more notes on my flight back to say the trip was so good for me.

We had barely kicked off our mother-daughter reunion in London when we found ourselves giddy in the Giddy Grocer, an adorable, little fancy grocery store Annie loves in the neighbourhood she’s lived in the past semester. As we admired the chutneys and jams and gorgeous breads on display, Annie mentioned she’d always been “intrigued” by the croissant loaf. A handsome man who was striding through the store with purpose overheard and stopped to let us know it was fantastic and that we absolutely would not regret it. We had just set out for a day of exploring but the spontaneous pop to the shop and fleeting exchange with a handsome man with a British accent meant we would now be doing so with a large loaf of bread in tow. When we got out on street, Annie informed me that the handsome man was none other than Joseph Quinn from Stranger Things in a freshly buzzed haircut. Our giddiness set the tone for the whole trip, which included quite a bit of spontaneity, conversations with strangers and loads of laughter. We hardly had any rain but even when it did, in such beautiful settings it was very evocative and bleak in a lovely way. Essentially, the trip was all about making space for beauty and joy and connection. 

And now I’m heading home with ideas and energy, which is good because I’ll need it. The day after I get back, I’m chairing our meeting to determine the successful grant recipients for the joint Rethink x Pfizer MBC RFP. And then I’m off to Ottawa for advocacy meetings as we continue to Break Through the BS on drug access. And the wheels are turning as I continue to think about Rethink’s role in pushing for answers on rising rates of cancer in young people. 

— MJ DeCoteau, Rethink’s Founder + Executive Director


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