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Erin Anderssen on Cancer: A Day in the Life

Globe and Mail Update

For five months, Globe and Mail reporter Erin Anderssen has worked on writing the story of one day in the life of cancer in Canada. Starting at 5:20 a.m. on June 15 in Winnipeg, where a woman with breast cancer watches the sun rise, she profiles dozens of Canadians as they experienced cancer on that day, as well as those who died from it the same day.

Over the next few weeks, The Globe will be looking at cancer, and the fight against it, from every angle.

Ms. Anderssen will join us online to answer questions from readers on Monday at 12:30 EST. Join the conversation at that time, or submit your questions in advance using the comment function.

Ms. Anderssen has been working for The Globe and Mail since 1997, when she joined the parliamentary bureau. She has covered politics, crime and social trends, and now writes features for the newspaper. She has won three National Newspaper Awards, and co-wrote New Canada, a book based on a Globe and Mail special project. A displaced Nova Scotian, Ms. Anderssen lives in Ottawa with her husband and two boys, and a wooden boat crowded into the garage.

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Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: Welcome Ms. Anderssen, and thanks for joining us online today to answer questions from globeandmail.com readers. In Saturday's Focus section, you wrote about a day in the life of cancer in Canada, telling the stories of those struggling with the disease, those who have recovered and some who died on that one day in June. It's an incredibly moving experience to read, and I'm sure it was an emotional journey for you writing it. Can you tell us a bit about how you reported this story, and how it affected you personally?

Erin Anderssen: First of all, I want to acknowledge the willingness of so many Canadians dealing with cancer to tell their stories, with such honesty and emotion. We are not very good about discussing death and dying, and for them to be willing to share their personal experience was really quite remarkable to me.

I found the subjects for the stories a number of ways: through support groups and organizations, by specifically targeting areas we wanted to cover, and by asking people to come forward who could identify June 15th as significant in some way, or had a memory of June 15th. I looked for people across the country, of all different experience, facing differing kinds of cancer, and at different stages. There were people who started chemotherapy on that day, or celebrated an anniversary in their cancer journey, or watched their son graduate from high school. Sometimes, while talking to people about their experience with cancer, June 15th memories sprung out of the conversation, such as Stella McNamara, the Montreal woman driving home from her chemotherapy who stopped in at the casino and won $900. Or Lynn Chouinard, the Alberta man who delivered his dog's puppies. It was amazing how picking an ordinary, random day produced such extraordinary stories.

This project has affected me like nothing else I have written. You cannot immerse yourself in the personal stories of people struggling with this horrible disease without being changed by them. Every night, I carried those stories home with me. I was awed by the bravery and resilience with which people confronted a terminal diagnosis, and saddened by the isolation felt by so many of the people I spoke to. And you learn -- you try to learn -- not to waste a moment with your family, because they teach you how quickly life can change.

Barbara Crook from Canada writes: I have not been able to think of anything else since I read these profiles. I felt as if I owed it to these people to read and absorb every detail of their stories -- heartfelt congratulations to Ms. Anderssen on making the reader care so much about these human beings in so few words. I was sad, angry, frustrated by the mistakes and delays, inspired and, of course, moved, over and over. Little Shelby will stay with me for a long time. I also thought about the way I deal with, and have dealt with, friends and family members with cancer -- do I let them share their fears? As it turns out, I also knew three of the people profiled -- they were professional contacts rather than close friends, but it was still a shock to read their stories. I look forward to reading the rest of the series -- thank you so much.

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