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See also   Intro and ’What Causes Cancer?’   or   About Carcinogens

Wendy Mesley fighting cancer

January 8, 2005

When Wendy Mesley discovered the lump in her left breast, her first impulse was to ignore it.

Not because the CBC news anchor and host has, in any way, a laissez-faire attitude toward her health. But because, for years, Mesley had found the odd, unusual growth, dutifully had them tested and all came back negative.

Until last October.

Wrapped up in shooting CBC’s much-publicized series, The Greatest Canadian, Mesley figured this breast lump, like the others, was a false alarm. But Liam, her husband of seven years, got on her case, and hounded her to see her physician, who sent her for a mammogram, an ultrasound and then a biopsy.

Two days later, the 47-year-old Mesley got a call that she was half-expecting ("I’m a journalist, and a nosy-parker person generally, so I’d asked the technicians a slew of probably inappropriate questions and I’d picked up some vibes") -- but still was not remotely ready for.

"It was just like in the movies," remembers Mesley, who was at work when she received the news that the lump was malignant and would have to be removed. She had a lumpectomy midway through shooting The Greatest Canadian and is now undergoing aggressive chemotherapy.

"All of us were clinging to the idea that, well, you’ve had a few scares . . . it’ll be nothing. But somehow I knew [this time would be different]. When I got the call, it was like, ’Wow. Wow. Wow,’ " she recounts quietly.

"I can’t believe it. I was quite stunned by it. I immediately went home.

"I just never thought this would happen to me," says Mesley, who has no family history of breast cancer.

"I do all these somewhat dangerous sports. I windsurf. I downhill ski. I knew I could hurt myself any number of ways.

"I just never dreamed of cancer," says the CBC veteran.

She co-hosted Disclosure, now co-hosts Marketplace and often sits in for Peter Mansbridge as anchor of The National.

Still, in her characteristically frank and inquisitive way, Mesley’s been trying to figure out why cancer, and why her? "One thing that has struck me is how prevalent it is. You become part of this club once you have cancer . . . and I’ve been stunned by how big the sisterhood is," adds Mesley, who has been told her chances of a full recovery are extremely good.

Ten or 20 years ago, she adds, nearly all the cases of breast cancer were genetically linked. Now, she says, doctors tell her they’re not. "One of the oncologists told me she suspects steroids in milk. Another thinks it’s all the chemicals and pesticides in our food. Some say it’s stress. Other than some misguided habits of my youth, I’ve always been something of a health freak, exercising and trying to eat right. So I want to know, what did I do? What did I eat?

"All I know is it’s a pestilence that is estimated to affect one in seven women. It’s way too common. But, thankfully, the cure rate is good. I’m one of the lucky ones. I got an early diagnosis. I am expected to live."

So she’s optimistic -- 90 per cent of the time -- but also sometimes scared, sick and tired. She’s now getting hefty doses of the chemo treatment AC -- which stands for Adriamycin and Cytoxin. The next round is Taxol, followed up with radiation.

Mesley has also discovered a small, malignant lump in her right breast that will have to be operated on.

"They found my cancer early, so they’re blasting it," says Mesley. "And I’m one of the lucky ones. I get a lot of nausea and fatigue -- and it is a roller coaster.

"But at the bottom of it, there are two classes of this disease: the one where you’re expected to live, and the one where you’re not.

"I can’t imagine being in the second camp. I know this is all temporary. If I thought I was going to die, I don’t know how I’d inspire myself. But this has been entirely bearable. My motto has been I can handle anything but imminent death. And that’s not on the table.

"This week I’m feeling great. Next week I’m sure I’ll be in the dumps again. My hair has fallen out, and that was quite emotional. But I’ve come to terms with that. I wear a wig, but not at home -- much to my daughter’s chagrin. It’s my only way of extorting good behaviour," she adds with a laugh. "I say to her, ’Behave or I’ll take my wig off.’ "

Mesley says telling her mom, Joan, and her six-year-old daughter (Mesley asked not to have her child’s name mentioned) were the hardest things. "I called my mom and said, ’I have some news but I should probably tell you in person, why don’t you come down for supper?’ I didn’t want my daughter to see my mother react," says Mesley, who is an only child.

"So I headed her off at the path as she hit the front porch. She was obviously devastated, which sounds like such a cliché, profoundly shocked and upset. But we instantly decided to just go into denial. We just promised each other I was going to be fine. That we were going to beat it. And why not?"

Her husband, an advertising executive, has also been "a rock." He had a bad day the first time he accompanied Mesley to the chemo waiting room. "I think it suddenly struck him, ’Oh God, my wife has this disease that people are dying of.’ "

But like Mesley, he’s got a dry sense of humour that continually lifts them all up. "He’s been good at keeping me laughing," she says. "When I first got the diagnosis, there was discussion of a mastectomy, which I didn’t have. But we were in the hospital and Liam sees this sign on the door that says, Breast Imaging.

"He says, ’Oh, that’s the husbands’ room. That’s where we pick the new ones.’ I said, ’No honey. It’s not about you.’ Then he more seriously offered to shave his head when he learned my hair would definitely fall out. I said, ’Thank you very much but I don’t need an ugly husband,’ " cracks Mesley. "So he still has his hair. Thank God."

That same head-on approach to accepting the realities of the disease was passed along -- in a gentle manner -- to their daughter. "She’s very sensitive and very aware, and we’re very close," says Mesley, who had her first child in her early 40s. "I just didn’t want one of those houses full of whispers, where the kids get a sense something is wrong but they’re not told what it is. My husband and I decided to tell her that I have breast cancer, that the doctors are going to fix it. That they’re going to give me medicine. I might be a little tired, but I’m going to be fine. I’m not going to die.

"Every once in a while she expresses worry, but as long as she’s talking to us about it, we’re fine. She makes jokes at school," adds Mesley. "About me being bald. All the kids in her Grade 1 class want to see my head. But I’m not showing it. She’s such a great spirit. It’s hard to keep her down."

On air, Mesley has always exemplified that hard-to-match blend of toughness and vulnerability. Those same qualities are in full force now. One moment she seems fragile. The next, invincible. The latter is the mental place she prefers to keep her energy focused.

"I expect to have gone through everything by Halloween," she says cheerfully.

So she works when she feels well. She stays home when she feels nauseous, tired or low. Her colleagues are rooting for her. "She is beloved within the CBC," says network spokesperson Ruth Ellen Soles. "She’s so straightforward, hard-working, simple, sweet, committed and funny," adds Soles, who also battled breast cancer in 2000. "We all support her."

Mesley keeps working, she says, because she needs the mental stimulation and the distraction it brings. "I’m not contributing near what I normally do at Marketplace," she says ruefully. "But having cancer is like a full-time job, all the treatments, the sleep, the throwing up and the research to figure out the kind of care you’re going to have. If you’re a control freak -- which I am -- you make yourself an instant mini-expert.

"I’m not afraid of the chemo -- well, maybe I am a little bit -- I’m afraid of what anybody would be afraid of in this situation: That some day it will come back and kill me.

"But I’m not afraid of dying right now. I feel very loved and grateful for all the support I’ve been given, from the CBC, my family and my friends.

"It’s just a rough and scary thing to go through, but I’m determined to come out of it."

2005 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.