Taking a breath and gaining a new life

Few of us get to experience a moment in our lives like Sheila Scott did, the moment her life began all over again.  For Sheila, that moment took place in the most unlikely spot, knee deep in the beautiful blue Caribbean waters off the shore of the Cayman Islands. In that moment, Sheila donned her mask and snorkel, took a breath, and dove into the warm water in search of what lay beneath. A year ago that would not have been possible. Not because of the breast cancer that lurked undetected in her left breast. Instead it was Sheila’s claustrophobic fear that had kept her from putting that mask on her face and that snorkel in her mouth. Ironically, it would be a part of her breast cancer treatment that would cure her claustrophobia.

The last year in Sheila Scott’s life has been a blur. It began in March of 2011 with an annual physical. That is when Sheila’s family physician found a lump in her left breast. To say she was in shock would be an understatement. Sheila had been doing everything right – regular mammograms, monthly self-checks. “I thought, wow. How could this happen,” says Scott. “I am healthy, I do major power walking and yoga, I eat healthy.” Sheila quickly realized what so many others with her diagnosis have learned. “No matter age, financial situation or general health, cancer does not discriminate.”

Sheila was sent immediately for testing at Southlake Regional Health Centre and a path of treatment was determined.  Ironically, two months before Sheila’s diagnosis, her best friend, Gayle, was also diagnosed with breast cancer and was being treated at Southlake. “I had planned to be a support system for Gayle as she went through her treatment journey,” says Mrs. Scott. Instead, Sheila followed in her footsteps and they became support to each other. “We shared the same family doctor, the same hospital, the same surgeon, even the same hospital room. I told Gayle that, other than my husband, I would share anything with her but that this was crossing the line. We were not supposed to share cancer.”

Further into her treatment, Sheila changed her mind, though. Sheila and Gayle lost their hair together, picked out wigs, encouraged each other to get out of bed when one was not feeling well, and even goaded each other on. “You don’t want your husband to have to give you a bath do you?” they would say to each other. “Get up and get showered.”

Thankfully Sheila also had a wonderful support system by way of her husband of 32 years, Mitchell and two great sons, Nicholas in Toronto and Christopher in the Cayman Islands.  Because of distance, Sheila was forced to tell Christopher her news via Skype. While he fell to pieces, somehow, Sheila did not shed a tear.  “It is those experiences that tell you, you are always a mother first,” Scott says. And she must be a heck of a mother because two weeks later, Christopher showed up at her doorstep, just to be there for her.

Sheila’s treatment consisted of a mastectomy, including the removal of 17 lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy and finally radiation. “Looking back, it seemed like it was weeks of bad news strung together,” says Mrs. Scott. “I am glad I kept track of my experience on my calendar because now I can look back and get a laugh from some of the colourful language I used.” Looking back at that calendar also helps Sheila realize how good she has it now. “When I look at certain dates I can remember what was happening and think about how I was feeling. Things are so much better today,” she adds.

When Sheila first walked into the chemotherapy treatment room her immediate thought was that she did not want any part of this. “I don’t belong here,” Mrs. Scott thought.  “Surgery was one thing but this is different. Now I am in it, I am here!”  Sheila received six treatments, each three weeks apart. While the physical effects were awful, the experience of receiving the treatments was anything but. “I felt like the women who worked in that room were like angels,” Mrs. Scott recounts. “And I met more wonderful angels later during my radiation therapy. It was like these angels were plucked from the sky to become my extended family. They were amazing.”

It was during these treatments that Sheila went wig shopping and where Sheila found Stella. Sheila ended up with a great wig that looked so natural she received many compliments from people who did not realize she was even wearing a wig. “I named her Stella and Gayle named hers Debbie. It became our running joke, “Want to take Debbie and Stella out for the night?”

With chemotherapy behind her, Sheila was to begin the final phase of her treatment, radiation, in mid November. She was to receive treatment five days a week for five weeks, and was anxious to get started as she had plans to spend Christmas with her son in the Cayman Islands, come heck or high water.

Things took an unexpected turn, though. “It started with a phone call from my radiation oncologist, Dr. Wells,” she said.  “I answered the phone and Dr. Wells identified himself and quickly followed up with the words, ‘Don’t get alarmed!’ Well, the minute you get a phone call from any doctor you get alarmed!”

What Dr. Wells was calling Sheila about was a new device called Active Breathing Coordinator, or ABC system, recently introduced at Southlake. ABC is a breathing apparatus that helps cancer patients keep their lungs inflated for the brief moments during their radiation treatment when the radiation beam is on. “Expanding the chest wall during the treatment keeps the heart out of the radiation beam and protects it from side effects.”

At Southlake, it is used primarily in patients being treated for cancer of the left breast, whenever the heart is likely to be in the area being exposed to radiation.

Dr. Wells explained to Sheila that with ABC, patients breathe through a mouthpiece, much like a snorkel, which is attached to the ABC device. The breathing causes a balloon to inflate, which stops the flow of air in and out of the lungs. Since patients are in control of the machine, they can release the balloon at any time should they feel uncomfortable.

“The minute he said the word snorkel, I began hyperventilating on the other end of phone,” Mrs. Scott said. “I am very claustrophobic and while I have done a fair amount of travelling to tropical locales, I have never been able to go snorkeling because the claustrophobia caused me to get very excited and pull the mask off.”

As Dr. Wells explained to Sheila, she certainly had the option to not use ABC. But he asked Sheila not to say no right off the bat. Instead he asked her to attend a coaching session on the technology. Realizing the obvious health benefits, Sheila agreed albeit reluctantly. Sheila did a practice run, going though the whole process of blocking the nose, putting the snorkel in and then taking a deep breath in then breathing out.  An emergency release button gave her some peace-of-mind in getting through the experience.

“My end game had been to go to the Cayman’s for Christmas,” said Mrs. Scott. “If I could wear that snorkel for my treatments, I knew I could wear it anywhere. My new plan was to get to the Cayman’s, and go snorkeling while I was there.”

And, Sheila’s plan worked. Her last radiation treatment was on December 15th and on the 22nd she and her family left for the Islands. Once there, Sheila donned the snorkel gear and jumped in without giving it a thought. “I felt as excited as a five-year-old,” she said. “I was seeing all of these beautiful creatures in the water and I just took it all in.” When she surfaced, Sheila’s son Nicholas looked at her and said, simply, “Mom, look at what you are doing!”

“This is where my whole life starts again and I am able to share it with my family,” Sheila thought, with tears streaming down her face. After that, Sheila snorkeled every day, and even swam over top of a giant sea turtle. Her only regret, “That first wonderful moment in the water, when I knew I had overcome both my cancer and my claustrophobia, I wished all of those angels back at Southlake could have been in the ocean swimming with me. They all told me I could do it and they were right.”