“I call her my warrior woman.” Jeanette Arsenault
Best known for her music and social activism over the years, the thing that Jeanette is most proud of is being a mother. Of all the things she has done, which include singing at 2 Olympic Games, recording 7 solo albums and 1 collaboration with her trio Trinity, receiving many notable awards such as the County Weekly Times Business Woman of the Year award in 2009 and local Entertainer of the Year 5 times over, it is being a mother that she counts as her greatest accomplishment in life. “I loved being a mom, every aspect of it, I loved being HER mom. [sic]”
Jeanette had determined very early in her music career she wanted to be a mom more than anything else. So when she was in the middle of recording her signature song ‘This Is My Canada’ and she discovered that she was pregnant she had to consider very quickly what she was going to do. Did she release her almost completed album and leave her daughter behind while she pursued her dreams, or did she drag her daughter all over the country while trying to promote her music? Neither option appealed to her maternal instinct and she made the choice to become the full-time, stay-at-home mom that she had envisioned she always would be.
Jeanette and Kait were quite close while Kait was growing up. Jeanette’s husband worked during the week in Ottawa so it was primarily just the two of them alone at their home in Cressy. Jeanette would take on musical jobs sporadically through the years, but her primary focus was on ensuring her daughter was able to participate in as many activities as possible such as sports or the arts. She saw her daughter through to high school and then proudly watched as her daughter went on her way to attend Carleton University in Ottawa. Something she used to say to Kait, “I’m proud of you, not for what you do, but for who you are.” She was beaming with pride however when she paused to mention the many accolades her talented daughter had achieved throughout her growing years, including winning the local Rising Start competition in 2010 and her many awards she received at graduation from high school in the area of mathematics.
Her proudest moment for her daughter was when she was just a little girl. Kait’s parents had begun to give her an allowance starting around age six. The amount was equal her age plus a dollar, and the expectation was made for Kait to donate the extra dollar to a charity of her choosing. Jeanette mistakenly made the assumption her daughter would choose to give to one of the many causes she sang in support for. But Kait made a surprisingly independent choice. She chose to support a cheetah sanctuary in Africa. By the age of ten, Kait had raised approximately $90 and her donation was sent to her select charity.
It was the Spring of 2014 when Jeanette would first see her daughter begin a harrowing journey no one could have predicted. Still in University, Kait had inquired about a small bump that lie beneath the skin in between her shoulder blades. Doctors figured it was nothing more than a benign cyst that was common in kids her age. Over the following six months though, what was initially deemed as innocent quickly grew into something much larger. It was then that the cancer was discovered and by November of that year Kait was undergoing radiation to shrink the tumour. January of 2015, surgeons removed the shrunken tumour and after multiple tests and scans, it was looking more and more like Kait was cancer-free.
A full year passed and new tests showed the cancer had necrotized the lymph nodes underneath her left arm, the pectoral muscles, and spots had developed on her lungs. Doctors were stumped as to the official diagnosis due in part because the primary cause was still unclear. The doctors gave her a diagnosis of Epithelioid Angio Sarcoma, which in basic terms means that the cancer affects her skin but it’s not skin cancer, it travels through her blood but it’s not blood cancer, and it landed on her lungs but it’s not lung cancer. Her diagnosis is so rare there aren’t enough case studies or patients with similar diagnosis, so the data does not exist to help doctors effectively fight the disease.
The news was like a kick in the stomach. Kait had to again endure surgery and then seven months of chemotherapy. The scramble to cancel everything in life became a priority for Jeanette. The intense urge to pray like she had never prayed before washed over her yet she experienced the deepest kind of depression unlike any she had ever known. The emotion and stress created a psychological warfare between the knowledge of the cancer attacking her child and the desire to switch places with her daughter. Being a woman of faith created a dichotomy in Jeanette where despite the longing to trust God there were more times she can remember bargaining with God to simply allow her a few days of wallowing in her misery. It was her close friends and loved ones who would reach out, and they were the ones to help pull her out of her deepest places of despair.
In the long days during chemotherapy a support team came together in order to support Kait, they were affectionately named “Team Awesome”. Initially it was comprised of Kait’s mother, father and boyfriend. Jeanette was amazing at organization such as making it to appointments and ensuring medication was taken on schedule, where as Kait’s father was a doctor, his medical and scientific background was crucial in helping everyone make sense of the overwhelming information they were provided. Rounding out the team was Kait’s boyfriend who provided emotional support for Kait. Gradually Team Awesome grew into an all encompassing community of people who would come along side not only Kait but her caregivers as well in order to help pray, encourage, and support to see all of them through the roughest parts of treatment. When Kait’s mind was too foggy from the chemicals that were being pumped through her body, she knew there were many others readily at hand to pick up the slack. And then there were “Kait’s Updates”, little reports that would filter through to the rest of the people in Kait’s life. The love and inspiration that Kait, Jeanette and the rest of her team received in return was overwhelming. Jeanette affectionally refers to it all as her “army of love” because people all over the Country were sending love and prayers their way. When Kait was unable to keep up to the deluge of texts and emails, she turned the responsibility over to Mom and she was more than happy to oblige.
Kait had turned to her mom at one point and said, “It is important for people to do normal things; BE normal. I don’t want to talk about this thing all the time.[sic]” Cancer had been sucking the life out of everyone, and the need to know the world was still spinning was essential. In late Spring or early Summer, Kait and Jeanette made their way to a local park in order to spend some time enjoying life and attempting normalcy. Someone had suggested that they find a tree and hug it, allowing its energy to flow through them. They each found a tree and named each one respectively, but Kait insisted, “I’m not going to pull energy, I am going to give it energy. [sic]” Jeanette declared she loved the way her daughter thinks and it was a special moment for her. She recalled her and her daughter only allowing positive energy to flow between them, and there was no room for negative thoughts and emotions. It was through these kinds of bonding moments where Jeanette and her daughter became exceptionally close.
As of August 2016 Kait is officially in remission, but Jeanette is still greatly affected by the experience. The seven months while Kait was enduring incredible pain, Jeanette was walking around in a complete stupor. Some days she couldn’t even crawl out of bed. There were 24 hour stretches where she would remain in bed, get up and make a small meal and then go right back to bed. It was all she could do to make it from day to day. She reasoned with herself concerning her grief that it wasn’t she who had the cancer, but she couldn’t deny the incredible depth of emotion that consumed her. Whether Jeanette was ready to fully acknowledge this or not, Kait was not the only one going through this. Cancer affected absolutely everyone in Kait’s life albeit in different ways and everyone was learning how to cope with this new reality.
When asked what the absolute hardest part to endure was, Jeanette began to tear up. Between muffled cries she responded very confidently, it was watching her child in pain and knowing she couldn’t put a band-aid on it, or fix it, or take it away. “She’s crying and I have her face in my hands and I’m looking her in the eyes and all I can say is, ‘I’m here with you, just know you’re not walking alone.’ It’s all I can do.”
“She’s so brave,” Jeanette abruptly adds. As a mom she carries a deep set belief it is her responsibility to fix everything but through this she learned she just can’t. “But God was there every step of the way. I just don’t know how people go through this without God.”
And Jeanette wasn’t sure if she would ever sing again. A huge admission for a career singer/songwriter to make. She felt as though she had lost her voice. But as she slowly recovers from the painful past few months she is beginning to feel her voice returning and she is finally able to put pen to paper in order to write. Without giving away too much, her next song will reveal that she has indeed “found her song again“.
People say that cancer changes a person. Jeanette says it is absolutely true. She is not the person she was last Spring. The things she spends her time on, her energy, and her priorities have all been adjusted simply because of enduring alongside her daughter the horrible reality of cancer.
When asked what she would to say to her daughter if she could only say one more thing to her, she responded with this: “I am proud of your warrior spirit, and the strength, the grace, the determination, the positivity you have shown through the greatest challenge of your life.” And it’s that kind of love that is beyond description.