Name: Emily Condie
City: Toronto, ON
What is something you’ve done that you’re really proud of?
I created a mentorship program at my workplace where I support and guide students through the process of creating a commissioned art or design piece. The program also pays them for their work which is so important since many students face financial insecurity. This program allows me to share my expertise and skills, while helping others build confidence in their work as well as their physical portfolios.
What is a top item on your life to do list?
Travel. I have been fortunate enough to have been to a few countries but I would like to continue exploring new places, both by myself or with family.
What are your hobbies?
I’m an artist so honestly I like to try anything creative, but I’m really enjoying making jewelry and trinket dishes out of clay lately as it allows me to work with my hands in a very different way than painting, which I do primarily. Other than making artwork, I am also very passionate about writing; am a self-proclaimed movie critic and book worm; and always love a good walk with my beagle, Ruby, when it’s not so cold.
Who did you support with cancer?
I was a supporter and primary caregiver to my sister, Sarah, who unfortunately passed away in November 2020.
What was their diagnosis? When was it?
Sarah had stage IV metastatic colon cancer, and was diagnosed in November 2016.
Life after cancer
How did you find out about their cancer?
I was at all of the appointments with Sarah and my mom when they were trying to figure out what was going on, so I found out at the same time that Sarah did from the doctor. However, her diagnosis changed so much in the first few weeks that she ended up changing oncologists shortly after that.
What were your first thoughts when you found out about the diagnosis?
Disbelief and shock.
The first year of her treatment especially felt like a whirlwind, and I really spent a lot of it in survival mode, just trying to get to the next step whether that was chemo, surgery, etc., while also trying to finish my degree and work. I felt very isolated as all of my peers were graduating while I was just trying to figure out how to not fail my courses while being there for my sister and dealing with the massive impact her cancer had on my own mental health.
How is life different for you post diagnosis?
My life completely changed after she got diagnosed. I ended up going to school part-time as I couldn’t handle a full-time course load with everything, and also so that I could spend as much time with my sister as possible. That decision gave me the flexibility to have experiences with Sarah that I wouldn’t trade for the world. In its own way her diagnosis allowed us to put ourselves and our future plans first instead of waiting until everything was perfect. We decided to move in together and did our best to do as much as we wanted, because nothing was guaranteed anymore. This led to many trips including Ireland, New York, and the West Caribbean, attending as many concerts as possible, and making so many other memories together.
Did you attend any treatments with him/her? What was your experience like?
I think I attended the most treatments with Sarah out of any friends and family, and was always willing to drop anything to go, which she eventually had to tell me to stop doing because she would always end up falling asleep the whole time. Going to treatment with her was hard, because she would usually be frustrated and just feeling terrible, and I hated feeling powerless. But we established a good routine eventually, and I know she was always glad when I was there. I’d like to think it made them a little bit better.
What major challenges did your YACCer face? How did you support him/her?
One of the biggest challenges Sarah faced was being declared NED (No Evidence of Disease) and then having a recurrence six months later. Hearing that news was extremely hard, especially because we didn’t have a lot of clear information about her prognosis or stage initially, so we were so excited about the NED status and to have a recurrence happen so soon after was devastating. I found that Sarah’s medical team also never wanted to talk about the incurable nature of her cancer, and it took a lot of self advocating to finally get answers about her palliative status after a really long frustrating hospital stay in 2020.
To support Sarah through these instances, and throughout her entire journey, I tried my best to treat her as normal as possible, but to also not shy away from tough conversations. Our relationship was special and I know that she was more comfortable talking about things with me than with most people, so I always tried to let her lead the conversation and make her feel safe to share any feelings she was having without judgement.
How did your YACCer’s diagnosis change or affect your life?
Sarah’s diagnosis impacted my life in many ways — one of the most major being the impact it had on my education and life plan. I switched to part-time school when she was diagnosed as I was having a hard time juggling everything, and I ended up taking eight years to complete my undergrad, not finishing my degree until after she passed away. This often makes me feel like I’m much further behind in my life than I want to be, and I’m realizing now how much I couldn’t think ahead long term because I never knew what was going to happen next. This has also really increased my anxiety and has led to overall challenges with my mental health which is a continuing struggle.
I have also felt huge financial impacts from her cancer diagnosis as I was not able to work full-time due to being in school while caring for my sister, and have had to take on many added costs while she was in treatment and now after she has passed away. This has left me in significant debt, and that makes it equally as hard to “start my life” as a young adult after finally finishing school.
What was the hardest thing about adjusting to life after someone close to you was diagnosed with cancer?
The hardest part of Sarah’s diagnosis was that it was overlooked until it got to the point of metastasizing, so throughout almost her whole cancer journey, I always knew that she would not go into remission. While that made me prioritize our time together and cherish it, it also wrecked my mental health. I found it hard to feel like the impact cancer had on me was valid as well as my priority was always on my sister and oftentimes I would burn out before finally taking care of myself.
I think the hardest thing for supporters is to feel validated that we are also experiencing this massive thing, because we feel like it’s not about us, it’s about our person, and that was something that connecting with other supporters through YACC really helped me with, remembering to put myself first.
Did you feel isolated from your peers? If so, how does that affect you?
I felt isolated before because none of my peers were going through something similar to my sister having cancer, and I feel even more isolated now in my grief. I feel as though the impact my loss has had on me gets overlooked sometimes by family, and that many of my friends are worried about upsetting me so they don’t want to ask how I’m doing, which is really frustrating. The pandemic has also really not helped as I’m not able to go out and see people to combat the loneliness I feel without my sister here, both physically and emotionally.
Resources and recommendations
Were there any resources you used to help you cope with supporting someone with cancer? What were they?
I attended a few caregiver talks through Wellspring in Toronto (and virtually) that were in partnership with Kensington Hospice and I found those to be really helpful and geared towards skill building. As most of them ended up being virtual, many of the sessions were recorded and can be found here.
I also cannot stress enough how one-on-one therapy has helped me be a better supporter. It allowed me to have a space where I could talk about how Sarah’s cancer impacted me, and I never had to worry about being a strong supporter in that space. Instead I could focus on how I was doing, and get support for myself which in turn helped me to support her better.
Were there any resources you were looking for, or would have helped you?
I would have loved some resources for financial support, resources on how to ask for accommodations in the workplace for caregiving especially when you’re a contract or precariously employed worker, and eventually resources on advanced care planning specific to supporters which may have included things like how to have conversations with someone about their will, or what “being an executor” means.
What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?
That nothing is guaranteed and life is too short to be unhappy with anything, especially yourself. Also that you will never have enough pictures of your loved ones so capture as many moments as you can.
Did you attend any support groups during your challenge? If so, what was it like? Did you find it helped?
I tried a few support groups, but found it was hard to be there as a sibling; many people are usually spouses or parents and I found they didn’t always understand how special my relationship with my sister was, or that I was her primary caregiver. I often felt as though there just wasn’t a space for me, and if the group was for young adults, I was still always the youngest person there and in a very different point of my life than someone who was in their 30s. Often there was also no young adult-specific supporter groups which would make that age and life gap even bigger.
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?
I would have loved to find a young adult specific caregiver/supporter group as it is really hard to relate to older supporters sometimes.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada?
I attended Survivor Conference 2019 and 2020 and am a current member of the YACC Insight team!