I recently celebrated two milestones in my life: 32 years of marriage, and two years as a cancer survivor. I remember the day like it was yesterday when I got a phone call at work and the doctor said I had cancer. And like all of us who’ve gone through this cancer journey, nothing prepared me for that moment. I went through a whole range of emotions that everyone goes through. My first thoughts were for my family, my future. I had all kinds of questions, uncertainty. I was distressed, I was unsure. I remember going in two days later to see the doctor. The doctor wanted to do a biopsy and exploratory surgery the following Monday. I said, “Doctor, that sounds great, but you know I’m an elected official, I have a busy schedule. You’ll have to get my scheduler involved. He looked me in the eye and he said, “From now on, I’m in charge. And this is the most important thing in your life.” That was a pivotal moment for me because this was a healthcare professional saying together we’re going to go through this journey and I’m going to guide and help you along the way.
When you look at the kind of care in my two years I’ve had, we did the math recently, I’ve had 200 hospital visits and 44 chemo effusions. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. It’s been very, very rough. But it has allowed me to live and it has allowed me to thrive. And I’ve learned some very valuable lessons. One is cancer is a very formidable enemy. And cancer, as it attacks the physical part of being, it’s going to do a lot of damage. I have to accept that and I have to accept this journey. But at the same time, I have never been in a better place spiritually. I think, Doctor, you said the word psychologically, I would say psychologically-spiritually. I have never been in a better place spiritually in my life because I’ve never had greater clarity about what’s important in my life. It didn’t take cancer to slap me across the face to understand this, but cancer has a way of putting everything into perspective. And when you’re living with all the uncertainty that comes with a chronic illness, you tend to focus on the things that are important in your life.
My doctor gave me a card, it’s called a cancer card. I play it a lot. When people come into my office and they want to be negative, divisive, and they’re takers, not givers, I play my card. I pull it out of my wallet. I’m going to play the cancer card. I don’t have time for this. I learned to cherish every moment that I have. I have learned the word gratitude; it’s been mentioned several times here. I’ve learned a deeper meaning of gratitude, a deep gratitude. I treasure the blessings in my life and will never take those for granted and I consider myself very lucky that I get to get up every day and be in public service, despite what you read about Chair Kafoury and me and others in public service. If you really forced us to give you a candid answer, we would tell you this is the greatest job in the world and it’s an honor to be in a place where you can serve others and make a difference in their lives. I’ve made a choice to use my platform to help others going through this.
There are still people living with a stigma of cancer, believe it or not. Even in this sophisticated time, there is still a stigma. There is a lot of misinformation about cancer and there are those who blame people for their illness. And what I’ve noticed about older adults, I’ve learned this in fusion work, is there are a lot of older adults that are going through their journey alone, experiencing isolation. And that to me is a sin. I would not be sitting here today, sharing my story if I didn’t have a lot of people providing love and support for me–cancer buddies, people who look out for me and others. In some ways I feel like my boat has been lifted by other people, by people I know and people I don’t know. And it is a sin to someone who is an older adult, an honored person in our society who has given so much, to go through this journey alone. One of the things that I love about this new program that Dr. Szeto and this great organization have pioneered is that that won’t happen here. In the House of Love and Kindness, people will have company and support and love. They will be able to share their journey.
Here’s the little secret that I’ve learned. Look, I’m very fortunate I’m at the Knight Cancer Institute so we know that I’m getting great care. I’m very fortunate that I have a healthcare plan that covers most of my bills so that I’m not facing bankruptcy. And I’m very fortunate to have a loving family that has devoted a lot of time to supporting me through the hard hardships. So all of that is a blessing. But the secret weapon in dealing with cancer that I’ve learned is the positive outlook that we bring to our treatment. It is very easy to feel sorry for ourselves. Depression is too prevalent. People feel isolated and once you lose that emotional strength, it’s hard to maintain the physical advantage, and for some people it means they just give up. So everything we do to fortify people’s spirit to give them a sense of hope, to pay it forward, to give that love and kindness to someone, it makes them stronger, gives them more resilience in dealing with their treatment. And we’re learning it gets better outcomes. At the end of the day, a better outcome and a better quality of life is what we’re hoping for people who go through this horrible journey. So again, thank you so much, Dr. Szeto, for the work that you’re doing here. The City cannot be prouder to be a partner in what you’re doing.