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Cancer: A day in the life

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

5:20 a.m.: Marguerite Sadowy, McLeod Street, Winnipeg

Standing alone at the front door of her bungalow on Winnipeg's east side, Marguerite Sadowy watches the sun rise through the trees.

She does this every morning now, since the cancer — she is restless, but she pays attention in a fresh way. Even a robin strutting across the morning lawn seems new and improved — as if, at 53, her vision suddenly has been restored. That's one gift cancer gives you, while it's taking away everything else.

She found the lump while showering, in May, 2005 — a red puckering around her nipple. She was always careful to get mammograms regularly and do self-examinations, but she still thought it was nothing. She almost didn't mention it to her doctor, but he sent her to the hospital that day. Before she could even process what was happening, they were pumping drugs into her veins, the kind they call Red Devil, saved for the most vicious types of breast cancer.

Her husband, Daniel, took to pacing the house, saying, “You're going to die. You're going to die.” She found herself comforting him. He did not want to go to her chemotherapy sessions, so she would sit by herself, envious of the women whose husbands came with them.

Her mouth turned into one big sore, and she couldn't eat or drink. Her heart would constantly race at 155 beats a minute. Losing her hair was the least of her worries. The mastectomy and 25 days of radiation that followed were easy compared with the chemo, even with the third-degree burns that ran down her neck.

Her two adult sons tried to distract her with outings; her youngest shaved his head in solidarity. But they, too, shut down when she spoke of her emotions.

She knew Daniel was giving what he could: He cooked, cleaned and ran out to buy her ice cream. But this was their second blow; eight years earlier, he'd had a heart attack and had to quit his job at the steel plant. Cancer was too much: He couldn't handle her helplessness.

“Not that he didn't want to,” she says. “He just didn't know how.”

So she learned to be strong in front of him, and went to see a psychologist. She has a session scheduled today, as well as a massage. She has quietly planned her own funeral, and written to the people she loves, designating books and jewellery she wants them to have. She doesn't want Daniel to have to face such things when she dies.

While her tumour may be gone, the chemo damaged her heart, so she may die of heart failure even before the cancer comes back — which the doctors say is nearly guaranteed. They just don't know where: maybe liver, maybe lungs.

This morning, she shuts the door, feeds her cat and sits down with her Bible on the brown, flowered couch in her living room. God has been a presence in her life since she was a child. When she was diagnosed, she began praying in the doctor's office: “Okay, God, what do we do now?”

The house is quiet. Her husband is still in bed. She flips to the Book of Job; she finds comfort in his perseverance through tragedy, and relates to his isolation. It helps her forgive the people who avoid her now, afraid to speak to her. Cancer, she has learned, is a solitary journey.

Editor's Note: This article continues with more than 50 profiles of people coping with cancer. To access the rest of these profiles, follow the "NEXT" links at the bottom of this and subsequent pages.

NEXT: 7 a.m.

To comment or read the comments of the others on this series, please click here to use the comment function on the introduction page. (Comments on the individual pages of this story are closed.)

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