I never anticipated that I would ever reveal my identity. Of course after all these years a lot of people have known. I have sat down with some fascinating people through this project, and I have been privileged to hear some amazing stories of human frailty, sadness, accomplishment, and excellence. All stories I have been honoured to tell. Some others have never made it to these pages, either because of their sensitive nature or because I haven’t found the right words. It takes care to tell another person’s story, and treating someone else’s life with anything but respect and tenderness is unacceptable. And still there are other stories pending just waiting for the right moment, the right season, or the right atmosphere.
But this one is mine.
It was the middle of Spring in 2016, and I had discovered an abnormality on my left breast. I went to my doctor on a whim, not thinking it was actually anything, and she confirmed my worst fears.
My doctor sent me to the Breast Assessment Centre in Trenton where I was scheduled for a mammogram. Never having been to Trenton Memorial Hospital, I was late for my appointment, so when I walked into the room the technician was rather terse with me. I disrobed and stood there, topless and vulnerable while she grabbed and manipulated my breast and placed them between two hard pieces of plexiglass. Her demeanour changed remarkably after she took the first image. Her frosty tone was replaced by an empathetic and compassionate tone, and I knew instantly that she had seen something.
She led me over to the room next door and I was greeted by another imaging tech. I laid there on the stretcher in that room and felt absolutely ridiculous for trying to hold back tears while she performed an ultrasound on my breast and my lymph nodes. And then soon after the radiologist came into the room, sat down beside me and patted my hand, soothed my skin as he slowly and calmly explained that he needed to take a biopsy. I was lying in a cold hospital room and my world was changing forever and I was crumbling.
My best friend’s mother was with me that day. I had initially chosen to go alone, never imagining that I would have been facing what I did that day, but my friend insisted I not be alone. I was so glad she was with me. She hugged me and let me cry while I contemplated what my life was going to look like–and how long it would last. It was good I wasn’t alone.
I was officially diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) in May 2016. IBC is an aggressive cancer that spreads quickly throughout the body. Life expectancy for those diagnosed is marginal, and while there are stories of women who have survived beyond 5 years, they are rare. Treatment was aggressive and began right away, and through the summer of 2016 I went through 8 rounds of chemotherapy. I couldn’t go out many places because I was weak and lethargic most of the time. My body was in constant pain. I suffered with urinary tract infections, oral thrush, blood clots and bone pain. One day early into treatment I attempted to attend a Canadian Cancer Society educational class for beauty tips and proper hygiene while going through chemotherapy. I was so weak I ended up fainting before the class began and peeing my pants–and I was too sick to care.
Losing my hair was an emotional event, probably more traumatic for me than losing my breast, but the most difficult memories I have from that summer were the talks with my young children about my illness. Hearing my ten year old son ask me if I was going to die was more that I could bear. His classmates had told him on the school yard that his mom having cancer meant I was going to die, and even though I had to coax it out of him, he sobbed as he mustered up enough courage to ask what he feared was true. And as much as I wished in that moment to tell him I would be fine, to reassure him and alleviate his fears, I couldn’t because I didn’t know the answer myself.
During the course of my treatments I had such tremendous support. I had people who would come and bring me food, clean my house, bring my children treats or take them on excursions, and one very special lady who would come regularly and inject my daily needle. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the help and support I received. But I was still the woman with breast cancer. People looked at me with pity and sadness. I was the sick one. And I was desperate for something that didn’t make me feel like I was sick.
In the early Fall of 2016, once my chemotherapy was concluded, I had about a month to wait and heal before I had to go in for surgery for a left radical mastectomy. But I was bored. And I craved human connection. It was the one thing that was sorely lacking while going through this battle, and it was the one thing no one could have prepared me for. For weeks I felt useless and powerless. I was so used to being independent, going to work every day, having a purpose, taking care of others. Now I was the one solely dependant on everyone else. It made me feel small. And as much as people were kind and caring and generous, there were only a few people who truly understood what I was doing through. Sadly they too were a part of the cancer club.
I had encountered so many people who knew I was a writer (as one of the many things I dabble in), and so often they would said, “You should tell your story–perhaps you could inspire someone by writing or blogging about your cancer journey.” But the LAST thing I wanted was attention. The LAST thing I wanted to do was tell my story and have people feel sorry for me. I needed a creative outlet to feel like I was doing something good. I needed to feel connected to the world and not feel like people were feeling sorry for me. And I wanted to touch the lives of those around me.
And so People of PEC was born.
I had been so inspired by the Instagram account Humans of NY, the varied images of people and the poignant stories of random strangers. My hope was to create a space where everyday people’s stories could be told to foster connection within our community. I am immensely proud that I was able to share the story of Ryan and Anne Snyder, who had been going through cancer the same time I was. Ryan was my first story for this project and the first in The Cancer Series. I have been able to tell the stories of some other truly fascinating people, such as Sir George Wright, or Jeanette Arsenault and her daughter Kait. And most recently I was beyond honoured to tell a portion of the origin story of Instant Rivalry. I am saddened that some of the people whose stories I’ve shared have since passed away, such as Charlene Inch. And I am inspired by stories such as Stephanie Bell from this year’s election campaign. I have been thrilled to publish essay’s written by others such as Talia Epstein’s powerful open letter about anti-semitism within our schools. This project is a small sampling of modern history for Prince Edward County. I am honoured to have been able to create it for everyone to enjoy. These stories, that are not my own, have fostered the very connection I desired to create. And I hope that if you are reading this you have been inspired or touched by these stories as well.
So it’s time to reveal who I am. To some this might not be a surprise, you’ve known for years who I was. It’s not like this was a tightly held secret. To others, you might think…”who is she?” But these past few months I have been having fun revealing in bits and bites to different groups who I am. I have been secretly amused seeing the look of “ohhhhh” because they’ve often questioned who the person was behind the stories. And I admit, I liked that aspect. I liked knowing that my anonymity afforded me a licence to tell the stories I might not have been able to before.
So why reveal myself now?
Because I can. And I hope that you will continue to read, and continue to share the stories of people who live and work and thrive amongst us here in Prince Edward County.
But above all–I want to connect with our community in a new way. I want to take this project and lead it in a new direction. So it’s time.
So thank you to everyone who has read these stories, shared these stories, told their stories or simply supported me along the way.
My name is Jennifer Litke, and I am the Creator and Founder of People of PEC.