Rethink Remembers: Anna Craig
As spoken by Shawna Rich at Anna’s Memorial on May 7th.
I am really honoured that Ian asked me to speak today about Anna and her contribution to cancer advocacy. There is quite a bit to say and I will try to keep it brief but I need to start at the beginning in order to properly explain the impact she made in the cancer community and the fact that her and Ian changed perceptions of cancer patients and their caregivers…
In 2012, the first time I spoke to Anna she called Rethink almost immediately after she had heard the news she had breast cancer. In true Anna fashion, the information was a call to action. She called Rethink and she wanted to know what we had to offer, how she could get some support and what she needed to know going into treatment. It was a pretty typical intake call by all intense and purposes – what wasn’t typical was that Anna called back the next day. Apparently, the hospital had made a mistake…she didn’t have early stage breast cancer, she had metastatic cancer or the “incurable kind” as she called it. Once again, she asked me what we as an organization had to offer her now in terms of support, what she could expect in the coming months and how she could prepare for the long road ahead.
I remember feeling really shocked…not because the hospital made a mistake with her results, although that was shocking. I was surprised that Anna called me back to tell me this news in less than 24 hours. Maybe it was because we had made a connection the day before and she thought I was easy to talk to or maybe she felt like I needed accurate info on her in order to triage her through our programs, but I remember thinking this is a woman who just found out she has advanced cancer less than 24 hours ago and she is seeking information and support. This woman is special and there is something fierce about her. A force. While many people take time to process information like this – Anna took action. And it would set the tone for how she lived her life with incurable cancer. With purpose, and meaning and a call to action.
As Anna began to adjust to living with mets she got more involved with various organizations across the country, went to conferences, retreats and programs across North America. She began to share her story to empower others living with the disease and to educate healthcare professionals and the public about the needs of stage IV cancer patients. She started her blog My Journey with Stage 4 Breast Cancer, posted her experience on social media and started to connect with key players in the young adult cancer movement to learn how she could get more involved and serve others.
We had many conversations over the years about the gaps in care for metastatic patients and their families…the more she learned the more frustrated she became and the more passionate she became to make change. Anna challenged all of us to become better at what we do and held us accountable for these gaps.
But she didn’t wait for us to fix them. She acted.
Why wasn’t there a mets group in Toronto?
Anna created the Incurable cancer Club in Toronto. A metastatic group for young adults and their loved ones.
Why didn’t organizations put more resources and energy into her community?
Anna spoke on a panel at Rethink’s Young + Metastatic Forum to try and bring to light the issues in her community and what organizations like Rethink could do about it.
Why weren’t people talking about some of the tougher issues?
Anna published her own blog and spoke about some of the tougher issues when it came to her family and living her life.
Why was the early stage breast cancer community so segregated from the mets community?
In Rethink’s Young Women’s Network private Facebook group, Anna posted metastatic articles and studies to bridge the gap between all women with breast cancer.
In 2014, when Rethink was given some funding to create a documentary about metastatic cancer, Anna and Ian’s story became the obvious choice. They opened up their home and their lives in order to give a voice to the experience of living with incurable cancer and Anna’s insight into sustaining a sense of purpose and meaning in life while trying to be a mother, a partner, a professional, an artist and a cancer advocate in the world was spot on.
In the final scene she says, “The difference between having regular breast cancer is your standing away from the cliff, when you have metastatic cancer you are standing right at the edge of the cliff waiting to jump – So you somehow have to find yourself in your diagnosis and we able to live with it as your living every moment for what it is but also your sort of living life fast – but not every second has to count – you also have to accept that you are a human being and embrace being human.”
The film was initially screened on national television and at North American conferences. Anna spoke on panels in Toronto Winnipeg, Montreal, and in 2015 just after her cancer had metastasized to her brain, her and Ian joined me at the 3rd Advanced Breast Cancer Conference in Lisbon. I didn’t know Anna had never been overseas and they were going to make it happen. Despite her health, Anna was energized and invigorated by the conference and the idea of having her voice heard globally.
It was amazing to witness the impact their story had on advocates and healthcare professionals in countries where people don’t speak publicly about their personal challenges with cancer, especially the male partners.
And while on the subject …Ian – I can’t speak to Anna’s contribution without mentioning yours. I don’t think there was ever a doubt in anyone’s mind that you walked Anna’s path by her side as her loyal caregiver, but you did much more than that publically. You also changed the channel when it came to how caregivers can support their loved ones. Your honesty and openness has been an inspiration to so many who suffer silently while they watch their partners get sicker and I know I speak for many healthcare professionals and advocates when I say thank you.
In Anna’s final year up until the month before she died, she spoke candidly about her death. Again, this would have surprised me (most people are not able to discuss end of life issues pre-emptively) if it wasn’t Anna but thinking back to those initial phone calls it was very typical of the person I got to know. She wasn’t going to pretend it wasn’t happening, she was going to talk about it.
The week before she went into hospice I came over for a visit. Alone in her living room she talked me through the art on the walls and spoke a bit about its darkness. We sat silently for a few moments and then she said, “you know I could talk to others who are dying too…it might help them.”
And I answered, “you already did Anna …and they all said to say thank you.”