A diagnosis of cancer istraumatic for individuals andtheir families. Imagine ascenario in which both parentsget crushing news they willface the fight of their lives, atthe same time. The Ryalls livewith this reality, and have found inspiration in their children.
Amanda Ellard-Ryall’s voice wavers as she and her husband, Francis, discuss the “gift” of cancer. “I do see cancer as a gift, because I can say I know the extra freckles on my kids’ faces. I see the changes in their eyes. I see the added colour.” She pauses, swallows, and then continues, her voice jumping an octave. “It’s not that I want everyone to get cancer, but sometimes…you have to look at (what) it does give you. Because it does make you stand still for that moment, it does make you breathe, and in that breath, you see the things you’ve never seen before.”
It’s impossible not to feel inspired after a conversation with these irrepressible Windsor-based RNs standing brave in the face of overwhelming challenges. Francis was diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2011, which later spread to his liver. Three years, three surgeries and three rounds of chemotherapy later, his prognosis is not good. In 2013, Amanda was stunned to learn she had breast cancer. She’s since had a double mastectomy and been through chemo. While the outlook is hopeful, she’s not out of the woods yet.
The couple must now juggle their illnesses, a growing stack of bills, and four kids under the age of 10. Yet they remain upbeat. Buoyed by a loving family and a supportive community, they have a remarkable perspective on the illness that forever altered their lives. “I’m sad this disease has gotten ahold of me. But that said, it doesn’t define who I am,” Francis says. “My wife and children have much more to do with that.”
Friends call them the calm and the storm, with Francis’ laid-back, steady nature balancing perfectly with Amanda’s type-A assertiveness. They’ve always had plenty in common. They’re both RNs, both teachers (at St. Clair College), and both Irish. Amanda immigrated to Canada as a young nanny, and Francis was born in Saskatchewan to first-generation Irish parents. The pair met in Windsor two decades ago, wed in Ireland, and then moved to Texas, where she practised on a neonatal helicopter team and he in an emergency department. They eventually worked their way back to Windsor, where Amanda returned to school and Francis landed a job across the border at the Henry Ford Hospital in Michigan.
They struggled for eight years to get pregnant, spending a fortune on costly fertility treatments with no success. Nine years ago, they jumped at the opportunity to adopt Molly from an international student at the University of Windsor. “She changed everything for us,” Amanda says. “It…was love at first sight.”
Two years later, Amanda gave birth to twin boys. And in 2008, just as she was starting her master’s degree, the couple was surprised by news they were expecting again. The newly whole, six-member Ryall family was settling into life when they were rocked by news that Francis had a tumour in his large intestine. “Your whole world crashes in that one moment,” Amanda remembers. Francis could no longer work, Amanda was still in school, and life wasn’t about to slow down with four young kids at home. Still, they managed to keep their heads above water.
Amanda found work at the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) and served as Francis’ unofficial nurse. With Amanda’s diagnosis in 2013, the couple that did everything together was forced to take on their most difficult journey side-by-side.
After spending two years taking care of Francis, an exhausted Amanda reluctantly let her husband return the favour. “For a woman, it’s hard to have no hair, it’s hard to lose breasts, it’s hard to look different and try to be the same mom,” she says. It was also difficult explaining matters of life, death and cancer to their kids. Amanda remembers the moment last year when Molly, now nine, realized her dad probably won’t be around when she grows up. Their seven-year-old twin boys, Killian and Quinn, think it’s “cool” that mom is bald. And when Amanda told five-year-old Kiera about mommy’s cancer, their youngest gave her mom a big hug and said: “You’re the best mommy ever…can I have blueberries on my pancakes?”
The Ryalls have been humbled by the support of the nursing community during these trying times. Francis still can’t work, and although Amanda has finished chemo and returns to work in June, expenses are mounting.“I just can’t imagine worrying about finances (in their situation),” says Dana Boyd, Amanda’s colleague at WECHU, and a member of the executive for the Windsor-Essex chapter of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO). “We know, as nurses, that you’re supposed to reduce your stress to promote healing.” Boyd and the Windsor-Essex chapter raised about $5,500 at a pasta fundraiser in March, and many of Amanda’s WECHU colleagues gifted their sick days to her in a bid to supplement her disability income.
Support has also come from the community-at-large. Two events over the winter raised more than $15,000. Friends and neighbours donated Christmas presents, shoveled their driveway during a particularly difficult winter season, and stopped by to drop off dinners. “It’s heartwarming, it’s overwhelming, it’s soul-saving,” says Francis. “Our community has stepped up and wrapped a blanket around us.”
The future remains uncertain for the Ryalls. Francis is likely facing his fourth round of chemo, after a recent scan revealed several new tumours. Yet the news hasn’t slowed them down. They continue to live their lives to the fullest, determined to make memories with their children.
“It’s better to live every day until you die, instead of dying every day until you die,” Francis says. “Do everything in your ability and do what you want, and what I want to do is get up in the morning and cook (my family) breakfast.”
While cancer can seem to be “ticking like a time bomb,” Amanda is spurred by the words of her father, a Sgt.- Maj. in the British Royal Air Force. “Live by the belly,” and “press on regardless,” he would say.
Together, the calm and the storm press on, ready for bad weather, but always looking toward the sun.