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LAURA’S ARMY OF LOVE

How a Moncton woman discovered resilience, hope and the power of community after a breast cancer diagnosis

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At the beginning of 2018, Laura Small of Moncton had it all - a happy home, a thriving toddler, a huge and loving extended family, financial security, and a career she loved as a school principal.

But just as her maternity leave was about to end, a doctor gave her news that changed everything - Laura had stage 3 breast cancer.    

"I had an 18-month-old child, and it just kind of hits you right on the wall," she says.  "I had a really hard time because it was an aggressive form of cancer. To get that blow from the side like that, that was a hard moment."

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Laura, who was 39 at the time, had started preparing lesson plans at Hillcrest School and was looking forward to being surrounded by students again - but going back to work was no longer an option. The beloved principal was suddenly bracing for the fight of her life.

For four months, she was in chemotherapy every 21 days at The Dr. Sheldon H. Rubin Oncology Clinic at Horizon's The Moncton Hospital. Through the nausea, pain, fatigue and foggy "chemo brain," Laura found comfort in the warmth of oncology nurse Tracey Firlotte and other staff. The clinic's pharmacist phoned from time to time to see how she was feeling. And, Laura says, oncologist Dr. Mohammed Harb always made time for her and encouraged her to keep enjoying life.

"I think they like their jobs," says Laura, a married mother of one. "I have had an excellent experience. Tracey has been salt of the earth, and they've taken really, really good care of me. The nurses in the chemo treatment room have been exceptional."

The admiration was mutual. During her months of chemotherapy, Laura made a big impression on people who work at the clinic. 

"Laura, from the beginning, has always had a positive attitude, taking her journey one step at a time and never giving up," says Tracey. "Her strength - and being very proactive in her care - was impressive to watch." 

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By June, chemotherapy had helped shrink the tumour. Still, Laura had to come to terms with the fact that surgery was unavoidable. A single mastectomy was an option, but she decided to have both breasts removed to reduce the risk of a recurrence of cancer. On the morning of July 6, she checked into The Moncton Hospital for the operation.

"I'd never had surgery before, for anything," she says. "I just kind of gritted my teeth and said, 'This moment is about my future. This surgery gives me the best shot at my best future'."

Recovering at home had its share of anguish. The day after the surgery, Laura fainted while sitting in a recliner. She wasn't allowed to lift her child, a blond, dimple-chinned boy named Parker, for three weeks. Fluid had to be drained regularly from the site of the surgery. Through everything, she had the unfaltering support of her mother, a retired nurse who worked at The Moncton Hospital for 38 years.

"She took time to understand the medications, pay attention to side effects, care for me when I wasn't feeling good," Laura says. "During the hardest times, she moved into my house and cared for me around the clock. My mom gave up a lot of time and energy to be there to help me through each step. I couldn't have made it through all the treatments without her."

From the day of the diagnosis, Laura felt like she had an army of supporters. ("Good people," a friend told her, "get good armies.") Her parents and stepparents helped take care of her son. Neighbours checked on her, often bringing food and yummy treats. Girlfriends visited her at home and met her for the occasional dinner in a restaurant. That unrelenting support, Laura says, meant she didn't have to experience the devastation of suffering alone.  

"I can see how this kind of critical illness requires community," she says. "I have felt well and sustained through the whole thing, largely because of a really cohesive, collaborative team that has taken care of my whole wellness. They've made sure that I have been well, and I think that's really important."

One of Laura's key sources of support is Jennifer Carey, her close friend of 20 years and an X-ray technologist at Horizon's The Moncton Hospital. 

"I got to navigate the system a bit with her," Jennifer says. "When she was in the department getting her scans done and getting her mammograms done, I was able to sit with her and answer questions she had about the procedure, and just reassure her. That was a real privilege for me."

Sometimes, the two friends would sit in front of the TV at home, sip champagne and talk about life. Jennifer describes Laura as a caring, genuine person who loves in a big way.

"Anyone who goes through a cancer diagnosis and the resulting treatment - there are times when you struggle," Jennifer says. "But she still got out of bed every day, and she was resilient, and she moved forward. It's been really awe-inspiring for me to be able to watch her walk through it with strength and resilience and honesty."

Part of that honesty was contemplating what her breast cancer diagnosis could mean for her son's future. Looking at him and all the people who surround him, Laura came to a beautiful conclusion.  

"I knew that regardless of whether or I not I was here, he had this beautiful family that loved him," she says, her voice trembling with emotion. "That's a good moment - to look at your life and know that whether you are in it or not, you know it's built in such a way that he's well cared for. It felt really good."

Although it has been less than a year since her diagnosis, Laura is already helping other people who are living with cancer. In the spring, she brought an audience to tears by sharing her story at the N.B. Doctors Cycling Against Cancer kickoff event.  She hopes to get involved with the Canadian Cancer Society. And she speaks privately with other women diagnosed with breast cancer, encouraging them to keep their lives as normal as possible.

"You are not just a patient," she says. "You are still a mom and a friend and a sister, and you have to really hang on to those things. You have to hold on to just a little piece of who you actually are and not let the illness consume you.  It can take everything that you have if you allow it to, and I chose not to let that happen."

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On August 23, just seven weeks after surgery, Laura marked her 40th birthday by throwing a big party at the Magnetic Hill Winery. There were ivory roses, cupcakes with swirls of pink icing, more than 100 friends and relatives, a happy little boy, and a tonne of love in the room. For Laura, the night was about saying thanks.

"I told the people at the party that I felt so cared for by all of them," Laura says. "It was a really hard year, but I did well because of their support. I am so grateful for my family and friends. They have made a difference in my life."

And after she blew out her candles, Laura and her army of love celebrated well into the night.




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