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'The legacy I want to leave:' Mother with Stage 4 cancer advocates for survivors

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To call the day she was first diagnosed with cancer "a pretty crazy day" might be putting it lightly, but it's how Lindsy Matthews describes the moment her life changed forever.

"When a nurse looks at you and says, 'I'm sorry, it's cancer,' the emotions bubble up inside of you," she told CTV News Channel on Sunday. "It's disbelief. I had a nervous giggle and then, of course, tears. Because you just know from that moment on, your life is no longer what you thought it would be."

As Matthews reflects on the beginning of her ongoing journey with cancer, people in countries around the world are observing National Cancer Survivors Day, an annual celebration held to honour patients who have been through the often difficult and traumatic experience of living with cancer.

In Canada, this group comprises a large segment of the population. The Canadian Cancer Society reports two in five Canadians are likely to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. According to a 2022 report jointly published by the Canadian Cancer Society and the Public Health Agency of Canada, more than 1.5 million people in this country were living beyond or with cancer in 2018, and the number grows each year.

Matthews is living both beyond and with cancer. That is, she was successfully treated for her breast cancer and declared a survivor; someone who had beaten the odds. Then it came back, and this time it was late-stage and metastatic.

"Unfortunately, I was one of the unlucky ones whose disease had progressed," she said. "So now that I'm living with the incurable form, I consider myself a cancer survivor because I'm currently surviving with cancer."

One important element of the Cancer Survivors Day movement is that it defines a cancer "survivor" as anyone living with a history of cancer — from the moment of diagnosis through the rest of their life. It advocates for patients like Matthews who are actively being treated for cancer, as well as those who are cancer-free.

"It's not just about awareness, but it's also a call to action to help increase the care for those who are living," Matthews said.

This is important, she said, because there is much that scientists, health-care providers and patients still don't understand about cancer, and how best to treat it. There's a lot of research still to be carried out, and the people and organizations that conduct this research need ongoing support. National Cancer Survivors Day serves as a reminder of that fact.

Matthews, a mother of two young children, is currently stable, thanks to a treatment plan that is working well for her. But she knows people for whom the same treatment hasn't been effective.

Mysteries like why the same treatment might yield varying levels of success from one patient to another, or why one survivor's cancer returns and metastasizes while another's doesn't, are why movements like National Cancer Survivors Day are so crucial, she says.

"I am one of the lucky ones. This treatment is working. But how long will it work for? Why does it work for someone like me, but not some of my friends?" she said. "There's just so much that needs to be done."

In addition to using her voice to advocate for cancer survivors and research, Matthews plans to join Toronto's annual Princess Margaret Walk to Conquer Cancer for the first time in September.

The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, which the walk benefits, has been ranked among the top 10 cancer research centres in the world. More than 1,000 patients from across the country receive treatment there every day. Through ongoing research and education, the centre has established itself on the frontiers of medical, surgical and radiation oncology.

"They're like the leading hospital when it comes to cancer research and clinical trials. And, since they started, they've raised over $180 million," Matthews said, adding that she and her family will spend the months leading up to the walk fundraising for breast cancer research.

Although they're too young to join the walk themselves, Matthews looks forward to leading her children by example as she advocates for herself and other cancer survivors.

"It's the legacy I want to leave, which is, when really hard things happen…how can we squeeze as much good out of it as we can?" 

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