Dawn Cleary (updated)

Sadly, beautiful Dawn passed away on October 28, 2014. She was surrounded by love all her life, and gave a lot of love as well. We will remember her for her energy, resilience, and amazing attitude. She was very involved with YACC and also worked with other organizations like Cancer Fight Club and Rethink Breast Cancer to help change things for the better for young adults. She loved Michael Jackson, dancing, laughing and having fun! She also gave the best hug ever. We will miss her always and will celebrate her life every September 21st, on her birthday. Thanks for passing into our lives Dawn, we will be forever grateful to have had the chance to know you.
Dawn Cleary - profile

Dawn’s profile was updated on July 13, 2011. Click here for the newer info.

Age: 28

Hometown: Mount Pearl, NL

What school did you attend?

O’Donel High School, Memorial University, Concordia University

Do you work?

Presently, no, generally, yes:-) I teach ESL at the college and university level.

What are your career goal(s)?

I would like to do more teacher-training at the university level and I’m very interested in doing more research, but I’m still deciding whether or not a PhD is for me. I think I might also be ready for some career additions (I don’t want to say career changes because I like what I currently do, I’d just like to add something different). Writing perhaps?

How did you find out you were sick? What event(s) led to the diagnosis?

How much time have you got? First of all, I don’t like the word sick. Not because I’m in denial, but because I never felt sick, ever. Tired, yes. Angry, yes. Shocked, yes. Not sick. In any case, my boyfriend (now husband) noticed that my breast was a little hard. I did a self-exam and found that there was something different, but not really a lump. I went to a GP who told me it was a cyst and not dangerous, and that I should see a specialist to do a fine-needle aspiration. The day before our vacation in France was to begin; the specialist could not drain anything, therefore discovering that this was likely a tumor. Whether or not the bloody thing was malignant was the question, so after an ultrasound the next morning, before our departure, three doctors agreed that the mass was not suspicious. I was told we should go on our vacation and do a core biopsy upon our return. We had an amazing time, except for the fact that the question mark over the mass in my breast was nagging. When I returned to the specialist for what I thought was a core biopsy, she told me that she had tested the cells which she did manage to draw from the fine-needle aspiration, and that they were malignant. About two weeks and several tests later, I learned that there were also 15 tumors in my liver. Words can’t quite describe how that feels.

What year was it? What was your age at the time? It was in August 2008, I was 27 at the time.

At what level of education were you at diagnosis? I had finished my M.A. a year earlier.

What was your diagnosis? Stage IV breast cancer, estrogen-receptive, HER2 positive.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?

Holy f**k. Is this real? There must be some mistake. I’m young, healthy, active, normal. What is going on? I’m going to die. I’m going to be sick, and die. What do I do now?

How did your family react?

My parents were devastated. My mother flew to Quebec immediately. My brother was upset but didn’t let it show too much with me; he’s a tough cookie. My boyfriend was, and has continued to be my rock.

How did your friends react? Were you treated any different?

My friends were all very upset and shocked. Most of the time I felt that I was the one comforting them. I was also the one who did most of the explaining, since they, of course, had many questions. Later on, I wasn’t treated any differently by my close friends, except for the fact that they wanted to lend a hand in taking care of me. Strangers or acquaintances definitely treated me differently. During chemo it felt like I was the car crash that they wanted to look at but felt the need to turn their heads at the same time.

What did your treatment consist of?

I started Taxotere (chemo), Herceptin, and Avastin (research trial), in September 2008, and it continued until the end of January 2009. As soon as chemo started, I became a fighter. I had a fire inside and will to live like never before. I ignored statistics that said I wouldn’t live, and stopped reading things about people with the same disease who died. I focused only on the positive, while acknowledging that there was a dark side. I had only a few days were the dark side took over, but I found a way to pick myself up, dust myself off, and fight some more. My hubby was a huge part of that. I went to the hospital for these treatments every three weeks for a whole day. I was really lucky and most felt fine, except that I had a major loss of energy. I continued to go to the gym or take a walk until around January. I also continued to look relatively normal until then. I look back at photos now, and am shocked at how terrible I really looked. Hair loss didn’t bother me too much (once I shaved my head), but the loss of color in my face and the yellow/brown around my eyes were hard to look at.

In which Hospital(s) were you treated?

Hopital Saint-Sacrament in Sainte-Foy, Quebec City.

What is your current medical status?

I continue to go to the hospital every three weeks for Herceptin and Avastin, and I am now in remission. There appears to be no cancer in the breast, and there are two small tumors in my liver.

How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially,spiritually)?

Now, I’m weak physically, and I’m working on building up my strength. I’m much more relaxed than ever before, probably because I’ve learned that the stuff I used to stress about really isn’t that important. I pay more attention to and appreciate many things in life on a whole new level. I learned that it was important to appreciate today, and to do things now that I can do now, which is why my husband and I got married in November 2008. I’m finding it a little hard to explain to people I haven’t seen in a long time why my hair is so short and why I’m smaller. I don’t shy away from them, but it’s awkward at times. Now, I’m focusing on the future, and trying to figure out how to live the most meaningful life possible.

What was the toughest part of your challenge?

Accepting the fact that this disease is a part of my life, forever. I used to think it would be like a bad flu; I’d be in rough shape, get treatment, get better, and carry on with a vague memory of being out of commission for a while. The harsh reality is that it will always be there, as a living reality or a vivid memory.

What was the best part about having your challenge?

The beautiful reality is that I’ve been changed in positive ways that I never would have if weren’t for this disease. I often say that it’s like a veil has been lifted from my eyes (I think I read that somewhere and identified with it immediately). I’m living in the now, and appreciating every single moment of every day. I’ve slowed down, and I stress less.

What really motivated you to keep going while you were/are sick?

Not dying. I’m too young to die now! This disease will not take me before I’m ready to go. Living a long happy life with my new hubby motivated me. I didn’t get married so I could go off and croak.

What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?

Besides the above, take care of your body! I had no idea how the things I was putting in, on and around my body were so harmful. Or how the things I was NOT putting in, on and around my body could have helped me. Above all, live in the present.

What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?

Before, I was afraid of it and prayed that something I or the doctors were doing would make it go away. I’m angry at it now. I want it to go away, and I’m figuring out new ways to have more control than it does, or at least feel like I do.

What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours?

Eat plants. Eat legumes. Drink lots of water. Use natural products on your body and in your house. Booze less. Exercise more.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge? No, but I did a course in art therapy for women with breast cancer.

What was it like? It was awesome, but I felt like a baby. The women are my mother’s age.

If you did not attend a support group, why?-Would you if one had been available? -Do you think attending one would have helped you?

Yes! If there was something for young Anglophone women, absolutely.

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada?

I found you on the internet, and discovered that Geoff is my cousin’s friend, so I came in to meet him on my visit home.

What are your thoughts/feelings on Young Adult Cancer Canada?

Finally! A place involving people like me.

Update

Current Age: 30

Age at diagnosis/relapse: Diagnosed at 27 and have had three recurrences since.

Hometown: Mount Pearl

How long has it been since your last treatment?  I’m still in treatment.

How are you today?  How have you changed since your last update?

Physically I’m healthier than ever before, if you can believe that. I’m very careful about what I eat, I have almost no side-effects from treatment, and I’m training for a half-marathon. Since 2008, I went into remission for a year, had two recurrences in the breast, discovered that my liver is cancer-free (yay!), had a mastectomy, developed skin metastasis on the site of the surgery, and had some seriously suped-up radiation therapy. I’m still on a chemotherapy cocktail, and happy to report no hangover! To date, the docs and I are quite happy since we seem to have some control over the disease, finally.

What are you doing today?

I really feel like I’m getting stronger and stronger. My husband and I just moved to Gatineau, QC, and it seems that we are getting a fresh start on life. Soon, I hope to go back to work and add maybe something new to my career. I will be volunteering with Rethink Breast Cancer this summer to start a Live Laugh Learn program here in Ottawa/Gatineau.

What are you goals for the future?

I would like to get a teaching job at one of the universities here, and if all goes well with my health, I would like to do a PhD, studying the effects of doing one’s health care in one’s second language. I would also really like to work more with young adults who have cancer.

When you see yourself 10 years down the road, how does the picture look?  What’s in it, what do you like, what do you not like?

It’s really hard for me to imagine what life will be life in one year, let alone ten. In my ideal world, I will be cancer-free and boggling the minds of medicine. My husband and I will be living in Montreal with a couple of dogs in a cute little house. I will be doing lots of teaching, research and writing, and I will be a marathon runner.

Do you have any advice for other survivors who may be where you once were?

I have so much advice to share! Here are the first five that come to mind.

  1. Never think statistics apply to you. What happens to you will happen to you 100 per cent of the time, and not even the best doctors can predict that.
  2. Don’t google anything cancer-related, ever. Talk to your doctors, nurses, and pharmacists about any questions you have. Google will tell you things that you didn’t want to know and that probably don’t apply to you.
  3. Empty your cupboards and pantries. Put everything in the garbage, and replace your products with chemical-free ones, including food, cleaning, and personal products.
  4. Shake your ass. The more active you are, the fewer side-effects you will have and the better your general health will be. I am living proof of that.
  5. Out with the bad, in with the good. Rid your life of toxic people and circumstances. You have enough to take care of, never mind situations that you can do without altogether.