Welcome to Canada!

I spent one afternoon last week working as a volunteer in our local second hand store. As I looked around the tiny shop, I couldn’t help noticing how the face of our small community has changed. Like almost every other rural community across the Canadian prairie, the town we raised our children in, just a few short years ago, had one Chinese family running a restaurant. There was also a doctor of East Indian descent who originally hailed from Ghana. That was about it for multiculturalism. The rest of us could trace our ancestry to various parts of Europe, but that’s no longer the case. In the shop that afternoon, there was my friend, Karen, a temporary foreign worker from the Philippines and over there, a young Asian couple. I’m pretty sure they were Korean. Another Korean family lives kitty-corner from me. In the shop, there was also a young Mexican Mennonite man, one of many who have made this area home over the past few years, and two women from one of the nearby Hutterite colonies. I live around the corner from a family from South Africa and another family of newcomers bought the house at the end of our street. The wife is from Honduras and her husband, El Salvador. Yes, our community has changed. It has opened its arms and welcomed the world and I love it!

Now we’re faced with the current refugee crisis and our government’s decision to open our country’s doors to 25 000 Syrians. Sadly, many are responding in ignorance and fear.

There are fears, perhaps even legitimate fears, that terrorists may hide themselves in the masses and infiltrate our peaceful nation and fears that jobs may be lost to these newcomers, but as I watched the news last night and looked into the faces of the sixteen weary Syrians who arrived at the Calgary airport yesterday, I saw people, real people, some with fear in their own eyes. Imagine for a moment what they have been through, what they’ve sacrificed, what they’ve left behind to begin a new life in a new and very strange land. They are not here to make our lives worse, but to make their own lives better and in so doing, they can make our country richer if we give them the opportunity. Who are we, born in Canada through no effort of our own, and benefitting greatly from the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before us, who were themselves newcomers from foreign lands looking for a better life, to close our doors and our hearts to these whose very lives have been torn apart by the atrocities of war? Who do we think we are?

Sadly, I also see racism in the response of some of my fellow Canadians. Canadians like the elderly man working the till at Walmart yesterday, who, during a few moment’s conversation while checking and bagging our purchases, complained bitterly that he’d soon be out of work because “one hundred of those Syrians are coming to Camrose and they’re going to take jobs from all the good people!” Perhaps I should have asked him where his people came from. He certainly didn’t appear to be of First Nations descent!

Much of the fear stems from the fact that these newcomers are Muslims, descendants of Esau, betrayed and robbed of his birthright by his twin brother, our spiritual ancestor, Jacob (Genesis 25-27). They are Muslims, painted with the same brush as the extremists who behead Christians on the beaches of north Africa and who strap explosives to their bodies and blow themselves to smithereens in the public places of Paris, killing and maiming hundreds of innocent bystanders. Are these the Muslims who seek refuge in our country? I don’t think so! That’s like saying that all Chinese Canadians are like Vince Weiguang Li who beheaded a fellow passenger on a Greyhound bus on the way to Winnipeg in July 2008 and ate some of his flesh!

It would be naive to suggest that there won’t be any problems involved in opening our borders to such a huge influx of refugees and I join my voice with others in urging our government to use wisdom and diligence in choosing who will be allowed to come, but how much worse will the problems be if we greet these newcomers with fear and animosity instead of extending a hand of compassion? The government has promised intense and rigorous security checks of each person who arrives in Canada and there is every reason to believe that this current wave of refugees will face the same scrutiny and review as all those who have come before them. For more information on that process, you can go here. Our new Prime Minister has already delayed the December 31 deadline for allowing the 25 000 to enter the country in order to “get it right”. The three families that arrived in Calgary yesterday all escaped war-torn Syria a year ago and have been waiting in Lebanon for permission to come to Canada where they were greeted by family members already living there.

Darren 2

It is the response of some of my fellow Christ-followers that bothers me most of all. Yes, the Christian face of our country is rapidly changing, but if God has called us to reach the lost for Christ, how much easier will it be for us if they come to us? Not many of us can “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) but we can reach out to the ones who move in next door to us with love and compassion and be the hands of Christ to them. It is not only immigrants of other faiths who are robbing our country of its Christian heritage, it is also those born and raised here who have become so self-sufficient and so self-centred that they see no need for a god of any kind and can only express hatred toward those they don’t understand or agree with.

Darren 3

Photos: Darren Makowichuk/Calgary Sun

NET Cancer Day

ncd-logo-newNovember 10 is Worldwide NET Cancer Day, a day for raising awareness of neuroendocrine cancer.

It’s not surprising that this disease has escaped the attention of even the medical community at large until now. Many family practitioners will never see a case. My doctor has been practicing medicine for about 20 years and I’m his first NETS patient. A locum filling in at our local hospital last spring went so far as to debate with me whether I even have cancer! He was completely unaware that neuroendocrine tumours can be malignant as most are not.

Is NET cancer really that rare? Here in Canada, specific numbers are not even reported separately, but my estimate, based on US statistics, is that there are approximately 890 new cases per year across the country with only about 106 of those residing here in the province of Alberta. In comparison, 2100 Albertan women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year and 2500 men with prostate cancer. Is it any wonder that those cancers have a much higher profile?

Since it falls upon those of us with the disease to do what we can to raise awareness, there are several key messages that we would like to highlight today. First of all, as with other cancers, early diagnosis is important. Sadly, it doesn’t happen often. If the initial tumour is found before any secondary growths occur, it can often be removed surgically and the patient is considered cured. Once it has spread, however, the disease is incurable. I had 5 tumours at diagnosis and many patients have more. I have been told that I may have had this cancer for as long as 10 years before it was detected quite by accident! Fortunately, it’s usually very slow-growing.

Awareness of symptoms is key to early diagnosis. Unfortunately, however, misdiagnosis is extremely common. On average, patients see 6 healthcare professionals at more than 12 clinical visits before receiving a correct diagnosis because symptoms of NET cancer are often very similar to more common conditions including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, asthma, diabetes, stomach ulcers and lactose intolerance. Depending on where the tumours are located, typical symptoms include abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, joint pain, wheezing, fatigue, and flushing of the skin. In very severe cases, there can be heart damage causing shortness of breath.

I endured stomach pain and diarrhea off and on for at least 7 or 8 years before my tumours were finally detected. At one point, a medication used to treat acid-related stomach problems was prescribed, but it had little effect. Another time, I tried a dairy free diet for an entire month to see if that would help, but it didn’t.

NET cancer can arise in any organ that contains neuroendocrine cells including the stomach, intestines, lungs, liver, pancreas and appendix. My primary tumour is located in my colon, but I also have three growths on my liver and one in a lymph node. Though it can occur at any age, the usual age of diagnosis is somewhere between 40 and 60.

So what are some of the goals of NET Cancer Day?

  • to raise awareness among decision makers, health professionals and the general public
  • to promote research aimed at improving quality of life and prognosis for NET cancer patients
  • to advocate for equity in access to care and treatment for NET cancer patients around the world
  • to bring hope and information to people living with NET cancers, their caregivers and their families

What can you do to help? You can help us spread awareness by simply reposting this on your blog if you have one or posting a link to it on your Facebook page. Thank you!

NET Cancer Awareness

Shoppers Drug Mart Beauty Gala

Shoppers Drug Mart Canada is a huge supporter of both the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the Look Good Feel Better program that offers workshops for women battling cancer to help them deal with the appearance related aspects of the disease and its treatment. Yesterday, Shoppers stores across Canada hosted their annual Holiday Beauty Galas to raise funds for these two worthy causes. Galas across the prairie provinces and in the Maritimes were held in support of Look Good Feel Better while those in the rest of the country supported the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.

I wasn’t actually aware of the Shoppers galas until I was asked to write a brief testimonial about my experience as a Look Good Feel Better workshop participant for possible use in publicizing the events. I soon learned that half ($5) of each ticket sold is donated to the cause and the other half is actually returned to the participant in the form of a coupon that is redeemable on any purchase of cosmetics, fragrance or jewellery made during the event. Participants are able to book time with Shoppers Drug Mart beauty consultants during the event for skin analysis and/or cosmetic tips and makeovers.

When I arrived at the Camrose Cornerstone Shoppers Drug Mart yesterday morning, I was warmly greeted by three of the store’s beauty experts. When they learned that I’m a cancer patient and that I have attended a Look Good Feel Better workshop, they treated me like visiting royalty! My makeover began with Teia who started by using a BB cream to even out my skin tone and then showed me how to add contouring. Next, Sherry did my eye makeup and added a bright lipstick to finish the look. I felt pampered and came away looking great, if I do say so myself! I love the fact that I didn’t look overdone and I really appreciate the fact that there was absolutely no pressure to purchase any of the products that were used. I’m also looking forward to trying out the many product samples in the gift bag that I received!

IMG_5853   12096130_925759854126528_3111711121152960152_n

Thank you Teia, Sherry, Jocelyn and Shoppers Drug Mart! I’m already looking forward to next year’s gala.

My “Have Done” list

It was Benjamin Franklin who said,

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

After running her first half marathon recently, my blogger friend, Donloree, wrote a post entitled The ‘Have Done List’. Some people write bucket lists noting the experiences or achievements that they hope to have or accomplish during their lifetime, but why not a “have done” list instead remembering and celebrating what has already been achieved? As I pondered this idea, I started jotting down some of the craziest and most adventurous things that I’ve ever done. Those are the things that I want on my “have done” list.

Perhaps the most daring thing that I did as a child involved sneaking out of bed and out of the house on a late summer evening with my younger sister and a visiting cousin. I don’t remember how old we were, but I wasn’t more than nine. That would have made my cousin ten and my sister six. In our bare feet, we made our way down to the beach in front of our house and picked our way over the rocks to the public park half a mile away where the annual summer fair was in full swing. Marvelling at the music and the bright lights, we desperately wanted to try out the merry-go-round or maybe even the ferris wheel, but we had no money for tickets. Searching the ground around the various booths and rides, we hoped that a happy fairgoer or two might have accidentally dropped some coins, but our efforts were in vain. Eventually, tired and a bit discouraged, we gave up and headed home along the darkened street which was much easier on our feet than the beach had been.

I was such a quiet, well-behaved child that as an adult I actually began to wonder if this had really happened or if I had only dreamed it. Eventually, I asked my sister if she remembered that night and was delighted to discover that she did! Hidden under my shy exterior, there must have been an adventurous spirit even then!

So what else would be on my “have done” list? Here are a few more from my younger years:

  • As a teen, I walked 25 miles (twice) through the streets of Vancouver in that city’s first two Miles for Millions walkathons. The hugely popular fundraiser for Oxfam Canada was introduced in Canada’s centennial year, 1967, several years before the country went metric. I even had the privilege of meeting one of my heroes, Coast Salish First Nations Chief Dan George, at the starting line of one of these walks.
  • A couple of years later, I spent a night on a tiny island on the Canadian shield without a tent, sleeping bag or any other camping equipment. My sister was in on that adventure too. We slept so close to the campfire that we woke up with tiny holes in our clothes from the sparks!
  • I’ve often paid no heed to an ancient Inuit legend and dared to whistle at the aurora borealis. Some say that that will cause the northern lights to dance while others claim that it will bring them down to earth. Some even fear that they will bring great misfortune or even death. None of these things has happened, of course, but I must include this on my list as the most common question I heard during the year that we lived in Japan was, “Have you seen the aurora?”

When our children were young, we spent many summers on the road camping and exploring Canada and the United States. It was during those years that I:

  • crossed the Arctic Circle

Scan 1

  • explored the reconstructed Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland


  • visited Anasazi cliff dwellings in southwestern Colorado

Scan 2

The number of memorable items on my “have done” list has grown significantly in the eight years since Richard and I retired from teaching. I’ve blogged about most of these before, but here’s a recap with links to the original posts:




  • appearing on stage in a teeny, tiny jungle girl costume



  • riding a tandem bicycle on the city wall at Xian, China where we also saw the amazing army of terra cotta warriors




  • seeing two of my grandchildren born and cutting their umbilical cords


  • eating a wide variety of weird and wonderful things including bullfrog

Perhaps, given the most recent happenings in Canadian politics, I should also mention that I once shook hands with Pierre Elliot Trudeau and, incidentally, found him to be a much smaller man than he appeared to be on TV.

Greater than all these things, however, is the fact that I’ve managed to remain married to the same man for 39 years and by far my proudest accomplishment in life has been raising three wonderful kids and watching them become the adults they are today!

My “have done” list could go on and on, but now it’s your turn.

What would you include on your list?

Is it a journey or a battle?

There are many metaphors that people use to describe cancer… a dark scary cave, a parasite, an obstacle, a roadblock, a hard stroke of fate, a great burden, a marathon, a drama, a dance. Understandably, Lance Armstrong, visualized his cancer as the most important bicycle race he’d ever entered.

I entitled my very first blog post about cancer “A new journey…” using one of the most common analogies for the disease. Is it any wonder that someone like myself, struck with wanderlust, would use a travel metaphor? It seemed to come naturally to me, and I have continued to use it ever since.

Having cancer is like going on a journey without a map. We have no idea how long the trip will be or where it will take us. There are unexpected twists and turns and bumps in the road. Thankfully, I don’t travel it alone. Just as he was always by my side as we explored various parts of Asia, Richard is my traveling companion. The journey is as much his as mine and the outcome will affect him as much as me. Unlike many of our wanderings in countries like South Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia, we don’t make this trip without travel guides. We have a whole team of medical professionals showing us the way and a host of friends and family cheering us on.

This is not the only metaphor that I use to refer to my cancer, however. The military metaphor seems to have fallen from favour in recent times, but I believe that it is apt and I, for one, will continue to use it. As fellow neuroendocrine cancer warrior, Ronny Allan, recently wrote on his blog,

“I don’t like Cancer – it attacked me, it attacked my family, it attacked others I know, it has killed people I know……. it has killed millions of people and changed many lives.  I’m ‘fighting’ Cancer.  I’m in a ‘battle’ with Cancer.”

Yes, Ronny. Yes, you are. We both are. We’re fighting for our lives and cancer is the enemy!

Apparently, there are both bloggers and professionals who don’t think that we should use this kind of language. Some claim that such language is inherently masculine, power-based and paternalistic. Really? Girls can’t fight? You just watch me! Others feel that using a military metaphor suggests that if one loses the war against cancer, she must not have fought hard enough. Nonsense! If I lose this battle, it will be because the weapons of this war are not yet perfected and our understanding of the enemy is limited.

We do have weaponry, however. We fight with surgical tools and with chemical and nuclear warfare. Like soldiers, we strive to carry ourselves through battle with courage, grace, and dignity and most of us have scars to show that we’ve been engaged in battle.


Walking the third pathway: living with chronic cancer

“Have you finished having treatments yet?”

“How many more treatments do you have to have?”

These are questions that I’m asked constantly. When someone has cancer, people usually expect one of two outcomes; either you’re cured or you die. Because two years have passed since my neuroendocrine cancer was diagnosed and I’m obviously still very much alive, people automatically assume that I must fall into the first category, those who beat the disease and move on. Few are even aware that there’s a third pathway. With proper treatment, however, some cancers are considered chronic. Though incurable, they can often be controlled with proper treatment and the patient can live what appears to be a relatively normal existence. That’s the road that I’m on.

“Have you finished having treatments yet?”

No. I’ll probably have to have them for the rest of my life.

“How many more treatments do you have to have?”

That depends entirely on how long I live.

People are usually startled by my responses, but this is the reality that I live with. It’s entirely possible that I’ll eventually die of my cancer, but I could also die with it. All I can say for sure is that, at present, things are going in the right direction. I had another treatment on Tuesday morning and the follow up scans showed that my primary tumour, which is located in my colon, has continued to shrink. In fact, it’s tiny compared to the size it was at diagnosis. That, in itself, was very good news, but we also learned that the largest of the three tumours on my liver has now started to diminish in size and there are no new growths. Obviously, the treatments are working! How long that will continue to be the case, no one has any idea, but we do know that there are new treatments on the horizon and when this one stops working, there will probably be something else that we can try.

So, what’s it like walking this third pathway?

There are plenty of things that I’d still like to accomplish in life and places I’d like to go. Some I’d like to return to and others I want to see for the first time. It may sound surprising, but there hasn’t been a huge sense of urgency to try to cram these things into whatever time I might have left. Perhaps that’s because our focus for the past two years has been largely on fighting, not one, but two cancers; the neuroendocrine tumours (NETS) that put me on the third pathway as well as the completely separate and unrelated cancer that was diagnosed seven months later. With that one out of the way and my NETS well under control now, maybe we can begin to focus more on crossing things off my unwritten bucket list, but the lack of urgency may also be due to the fact that I don’t really sense that my end is imminent. You see, I really hope to be one of the ones who dies with this disease, not of it.

I still plan for the future, but I’ve also been learning to inhabit one square on the calendar at a time. Walking this pathway has definitely given me a greater appreciation for the moment and for the small things in life. I’ve always loved hiking, but the delight that it gave me this summer was greater than ever before. I was simply so thankful to be able to do it! I don’t take things like that for granted anymore.

I’ve always been one who believed in living life to the fullest; now I just have to do that within the confines of my treatment. There are limitations, of course, especially during a week like this one when I’m highly radioactive, but overall, I am blessed to be able to continue living a fairly normal life.


The colours of cancer

BreastCancerAwarenessPinkRibbonOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the world around us is turning pink. Professional football players wear pink booties and gloves, NASCAR drivers dress in pink and drive pink cars, and restaurants serve up pink drinks and even pink burgers! In October anything pink sells; everything from pink vacuum cleaners to pink tools and coveralls. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against increasing awareness of the disease that is one of the leading causes of death for Canadian women. It took the life of one of my dearest friends just over nine years ago, but I’m fully behind the “Think before you pink” movement that strives to draw attention to the fact that all is not what it appears to be in the world of pink.

Samantha King is the author of Pink Ribbons, Inc., a 2006 book that examined how breast cancer has become a dream come true for some companies that want to bask in the glow of corporate do-gooding. An associate professor of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, King helped popularize the term “pinkwashing” to describe campaigns that flaunt the ubiquitous pink ribbon but have negligible effects on the realities of breast cancer. Some companies use pink ribbon related marketing to increase sales while contributing only a tiny fraction of the proceeds to the cause, or use pinkwashing to improve their public image while manufacturing products that may, in fact, be carcinogenic.

Any company can put pink ribbons on its products. When purchasing cancer awareness products, be a savvy shopper. Check the label or tag and ensure that a percentage of the purchase price is actually going to a recognizable foundation or non-profit organization. Oftentimes, making a direct donation to your favourite cancer charity is actually a better way to go.

Is pink the only colour of cancer though? Absolutely not! In fact, there are awareness ribbons in practically every colour imaginable, each one representing a different cancer. Ovarian cancer is teal, uterine cancer peach, liver cancer emerald green and colon cancer dark blue. Prostate cancer is light blue, testicular cancer orchid, leukemia orange and mesothelioma royal blue.

And what of my cancers? Head and neck cancers are burgundy and white, but that one is gone, hopefully for good. This is the ribbon that I wear:

zebra ribbon

The zebra stripe represents neuroendocrine (NETS) and carcinoid cancers. It’s not surprising that we zebras don’t get as much attention as those pink people do. After all, there aren’t very many of us. In Canada, specific numbers for neuroendocrine cancer are not even reported separately, but in the US there are an estimated 8000 new cases each year. Compared to the approximately 294 500 new cases of breast cancer that are expected to be diagnosed in that country in 2015, that’s a very tiny number, but we need awareness too. There are family doctors who have never heard of neuroendocrine cancer. They have no idea what it is, how it’s treated or that it’s incurable. A locum filling in at our local hospital actually questioned whether I had cancer at all!

NETS not pink

Blogs devoted to NET cancer awareness:



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