By Kendall Blenkarn
“Something you never think about is how to tell your ten year old son you have cancer. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life”.
Meet Arianne Lang, a woman brimming with energy and zest for life. Someone identifying with so many different roles: mother, daughter, wife, friend, and TELUS Health team member.
A TELUS team member for over 15 years, she joined TELUS Health in 2018 after her father passed away from a stroke. “Losing my father devastated me”, says Arianne, “I joined TELUS Health because I wanted to be more involved in transforming healthcare. I wanted to make a difference”.
Little did Arianne know that at 42, a new identity she would reckon with would be someone with cancer, and her journey with the disease would invoke in her a passion to educate and raise awareness of the importance of prevention and early detection.
Arianne’s journey to diagnosis
When speaking about her journey through diagnosis and treatment, Arianne maintains a sense of humour, joking that she “becomes Rain Man” because she remembers every day, every phone call, every part of the process – as though it was happening in slow motion.
It all started when a friend informed her that she should get a mammogram because she was over 40, and in BC, you can self-refer to get a mammogram over the age of 40. “I was so busy”, says Arianne “but after almost two years of my girlfriend basically nagging me to do it, when the chaos of COVID cleared up, I finally went in for my first mammogram at the beginning of May 2022.”
In BC, while women over 40 can refer themselves for a mammogram – the results must be sent to a healthcare practitioner. In Arianne’s case, she, like approximately 1 in 5 people in BC, didn’t have a family doctor. So in the absence of a family doctor, she had the results sent to a virtual care provider, TELUS Health MyCare.
“MyCare allows anyone to book an appointment with a family physician, and is available for free to most people in Canada”, she says, “in many ways, knowing that I could have my mammogram results sent there may have saved my life”.
The results of Arianne’s first mammogram were unclear, and her physician referred her for a second mammogram and ultrasound on July 4th. After the follow-up mammogram and ultrasound, they discovered two lumps in her left breast.
Arianne was unaware of these lumps, as they were undetectable through self-exam, and only discovered by screening. She underwent a biopsy to determine the nature of the two lumps on July 15th.
However on July 25th, Arianne’s life was flipped upside down. “It was a Monday and it was a beautiful summer day”, she says, “I didn’t expect to be going to bed that night a totally different person”.
The TELUS Health MyCare physician called Arianne with the results of her biopsy. “The doctor asked me if I was home alone”, she says, “and I knew that the news wasn’t going to be good. My husband joined the video chat with me”.
The doctor informed her that she had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, which is breast cancer. Her next step was to visit an oncologist to find out more about her prognosis and treatment.
Arianne describes the three weeks between her diagnosis and the first appointment with her oncologist as some of the most challenging parts of her journey with cancer. “I was living in fear and uncertainty. Not knowing what was going to happen next was extremely stressful. How could this be happening to me? How will I tell my son? Will I see him go to his first day of middle school?”
On August 16th, her oncologist told her they had caught the cancer early – in stage one. Her treatment protocol to begin with was breast surgery, which she underwent two weeks later.
Arianne was fortunate to have had her cancer detected early, and she credits her screening mammogram as key in her good outcome. “If I waited to get screened, my outcome would have been very different”, she says.
Dr. Paula Gordon, radiologist, is a passionate advocate when it comes to breast cancer screening. She says that the early days of the pandemic are an example of the importance of early detection. Due to lack of personal protective equipment, asymptomatic women were not being screened, and this meant that “tiny cancers that would have been undetectable without screening got to grow”.
Stressing the importance of screening starting annually after the age of 40, Dr. Gordon notes that “when cancer is caught at stage one or zero, five year survival rate is 100%”.
Living with cancer
It was after Arianne found out her prognosis and treatment plan that she managed to tell her son. “He asked me if I was going to die”, said Arianne, “all he ever knew about cancer was that people died from it”.
In the span of five weeks, Arianne had gone from a typical working person – a wife, mother, friend and daughter – to someone with cancer. “I was on autopilot” she said, “I tried my best to do what I needed to do – care for my son, cook dinner, do what I needed to do to maintain some sense of normalcy – all while navigating an increasing number of medical appointments and so much uncertainty. It took me a while before I told other people that weren’t in my inner circle. How do I tell people I have cancer when I'm still grappling with what that means for me and my future?”
September 7th, two weeks after her surgery, she met with her surgeon who told her that the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes.
“I celebrated September 7th as my first cancer free day”, says Arianne.
However, while Arianne was “cancer-free”, the next step was to make sure the cancer did not come back. Arianne underwent 10 rounds of radiation therapy, a preventive measure that kills potential cancer cells, which started in December and ended three days before Christmas.
She also began hormone therapy to help block estrogen – a hormone that some breast cancers feed, including Arianne's. “When women get breast cancer before menopause, these cancers grow faster than in older women” says Dr. Gordon. She also stresses that because increased levels of hormones like estrogen cause breast cancer in younger women to grow faster, it’s especially important to undergo screening mammograms starting at age 40.
Arianne’s radiation oncologist was unsure that her radiation treatments would end before Christmas, so when it did “it really was a Christmas miracle” says Arianne. “On the last day of treatment you get to ring a bell in the hospital and everyone claps and cheers for you. It’s a big moment”.
In addition to the physical care she received, Arianne was also supported by her employer. Her team and manager supported her on short-term disability that turned into long-term disability, she had health benefits to use while she was on leave, and when it came time to come back to work after nine months, she used her Employee Assistance Program to help her ease back to work in a manageable way.
“I wanted to come back to work”, she says “but I needed to ease in. I had anxiety about it. I can’t tell you how important it was to me to be supported by an employer that supported my total health. TELUS took care of me physically, mentally, and financially when I needed it the most”.
Arianne worked with her manager on a gradual return to work, which started with four hours a day, working herself up to full-time after a number of weeks. She and her manager had daily check-ins to see how she was doing, and she did a lot of “walk-and-talks” – meetings that she took over the phone so she could get exercise during the day.
What Arianne wants you to know
While Arianne’s experience was traumatic, it was also life-changing. Similarly to what motivated her to join TELUS Health after her father’s death, Arianne wants to use her cancer journey to educate others.
The shocking reality is that one in eight women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime. Arianne was diagnosed with cancer without experiencing any symptoms – and she, like many others throughout the pandemic, put off preventive health measures like cancer screening.
In addition to screening, Dr. Gordon emphasizes that while there are a list of factors that women can't control that increase breast cancer risk (like having a family history), there is a list they can control. "Women should know that alcohol increases breast cancer risk", she says. She also stresses the importance of exercising regularly, not smoking, and attaining and maintaining a healthy body weight.
"It's thought that many breast cancers could be prevented if women followed these guidelines", says Dr. Gordon.
Arianne also took care of her mental health while going through treatment by seeing a mental health professional. Mental health support was critical for her, as while cancer may manifest as a physical disease “it takes a toll on you emotionally, as well on your loved ones”, she says.
In addition to educating women about the importance of preventive measures like regular screenings, Arianne wants women to advocate for themselves, take the time to look after their health – and not to feel guilty about it. “Cancer taught me to prioritize my own wellbeing” she adds, “my hope is that my journey helps others to do the same”.
More than anything, Arianne wants women to get screenings as soon as they can, and to spread this knowledge to all the other women they know. “When more women are informed about their health and share their experiences” she says, “I truly believe we can improve health outcomes around the world”.