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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.

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length, clarity or relevance. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on Globe journalists, other participants in these discussions, questions/comments that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

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.

Erin Anderssen: Hi Barbara -- Thank you for your kind note. As I have said, it was remarkable to me how willing people were to come forward and tell their stories. Like you, I also thought, as I was interviewing them and writing the piece, how differently I would handle a friend or family member getting cancer. We get very nervous talking about death when people who are facing it really need someone to listen to them. That was one theme that came out over and over again in my interviews: just how lonely the disease makes you feel.

Susan MacDonald from Amherst, Canada writes: When an individual is given a diagnosis of terminal cancer by conventional methods, why is our healthcare system not prepared to accept guidance from professionals utilizing natural medicine instead of giving no hope at all? Why can they not work together and bridge the gap in our healthcare system?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Susan, your question certainly raises an issue repeatedly mentioned by the people I interviewed. Their experiences did vary. There were doctors who spoke with disdain about natural options to supplement cancer treatment. But there were several patients who said their oncologists supported their use of alternative treatments, as long as they were kept informed of them. I think you correctly identify the conflict between traditional and alternative therapies as an area that needs to be explored in the way we treat cancer.

Valerie Spentzos from Vancouver, Canada writes: Ms. Anderssen, do you really feel that given the millions of dollars contributed to cancer charities, especially for breast cancer, there has really been any significant improvement in treatment in the past 50 years? It seems to be the same old "cut, burn and poison" and the number of survivors (there are no cures) has not dramatically increased. And the cause of cancer seems as shrouded in mystery as ever.

Erin Anderssen: Hi Valerie: There are some clear signs that we have been making progress. Although it is not a cure, people are living longer with cancer as a chronic disease -- our Focus project included many people who are still living up to 10 years after being diagnosed as terminal.

While many of the subjects of the story described chemotherapy as horrible in its side effects and fallout, several others recounted how much better their experience was than that of loved ones they knew who had received chemotherapy years ago. Research has improved the ability of drugs to target specific cancers, and has developed medication to reduce the side effects.

One of the most important areas that has been proven to reduce mortality rates is the ability to diagnose cancer in the early stages. The PSA blood test for prostate cancer and the PAP test for cervical cancer has meant that far, far fewer people die of these kinds of cancer. It is not a cure, but screening for early detection is an important area of research, especially since, as the story made clear, so many cancers are diagnosed too late.

Tony De Furia from Aurora, Canada writes: With cancer cutting across the age boundary, do you get the sense that at least one of the root causes is something that we have put into the environment? In my mind, the lifestyle argument just doesn't cut it because children are now getting cancer at a younger age at a far greater rate than in the past. They are naturally active, don't drink or smoke and we feed them the very best food available. If everything was OK they would not be getting cancer. What is your sense of research dollars being directed towards the causes of cancer versus a cure?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Tony: I think this is definitely an area that requires further study. This is one of the true tragedies and mysteries of cancer: that it seems so random. Over and over again, people told me how healthy they had been before their diagnosis, how they ate well, and exercised, how they had done everything right and still gotten sick. Other countries, like Sweden, are more focused on preventing cancer than curing cancer, through environmental polices and by promoting healthy living. We do hear a lot about finding a cure. But it seems clear that we need also to explore the causes of cancer, and how we might prevent it in the first place.

Ryan Rankin from Windsor, Canada writes: Hi Ms. Anderssen. I was quite moved by the stories you wrote. For those of us truly moved by your work, what do you suggest we do now?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Ryan, and thanks for your question. One thing that I learned from this project is how often people with cancer feel that no one wants to listen to them. They say it is often assumed that because their treatment is over, or they have "beaten it," that their cancer is over. In truth, people in the midst of a cancer diagnosis are struggling with their fears of dying, and if they are finished, they are haunted by fears that it will come back.

If anything comes of this story, I would hope that more people take the time to call a friend or family they know who is facing cancer -- or had faced cancer in the past, even -- and let them talk about how they are really doing.

Scott Lapstra from Toronto, Canada writes: I thoroughly enjoyed the Focus section and am very thankful for my good health, but do have an inquiry about cancer rates in general. While perception is that cancer is at epidemic proportions, is this actually true? My limited understanding of the disease leads me to the understanding that cancer is primarily a disease related to age (not withstanding the many stories of younger cancer victims profiled); if this is true, are our aging demographics influencing the conventional perspective that cancer rates are increasing disproportionately within the overall population?

Erin Anderssen: Hi Scott: It is true that the increasing number of new cases is primarily due to our aging population. According to national statistics released for 2006, the actual rate of new cancer incidents has increased only slightly, while the mortality rate has declined slightly since 1977. But the rising number of cancer incidents -- and the fact that people are able to live much longer with the disease -- will create a heavy burden on the health care system, particularly since 2006 estimates suggest the majority of those cases will be between the ages of 40 and 70, their prime working years. This is why we need to be clear about a national strategy for dealing with cancer.

Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: Thanks Ms. Anderssen, and thanks to everyone who joined us online. Sorry we couldn't get to all the questions, but that's all the time we have for today. Ms. Anderssen, any parting thoughts?

Erin Anderssen: I would just like to thank again all the people who agreed to be interviewed for the story. Hopefully their perspectives have helped to enlighten the way we view the personal impact of cancer -- and will improve the way we treat the people who close to us who may someday hear those terrifying words: You have cancer.

Rebecca Dube, globeandmail.com: One final note: Many of the questions submitted touched on medical questions about the causes of cancer and political questions about how the disease is treated in this country. I encourage everyone who's interested in the topic to continue following our cancer series. In today's paper, Lisa Priest writes about how many Canadians can't afford cancer drugs, and how the social safety net varies dramatically from province to province. Ms. Priest will be online Friday to talk about her series of stories, running all this week in The Globe and Mail; please bring your questions to that discussion as well. Thanks for joining the conversation.

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