Doctors are human, too, but when it comes to Canada’s own Dr. Marla, we already knew that. As the host of CTV’s Balance: Television for Living Well, Dr. Marla Shapiro has shown viewers both her calm and clinical side, as well as her warm and approachable side. But on Aug. 13, 2004, when Shapiro went for a routine mammogram and discovered she had breast cancer, she emerged a different person. Her new book, “Life in the Balance: My Journey with Breast Cancer,” chronicles her experience with a disease that currently claims the lives of roughly 102 Canadian women each week.
Dr. Marla shares with Popjournalism her personal experiences about going bald in public, misconceptions about stress and cancer, finding her footing and accepting support from others.
What was your main motivation for writing “Life in the Balance”? What was the most therapeutic part of that year to revisit? What was the most painful?
It was all very painful to go back and re-read what I had written and edit it into a book. But it also was helpful to go back and see how I had indeed changed throughout the journey and how the journey had, in many ways, made me into who I am today. It was painful to revisit my fears, my children’s fears, the uncertainty in the decision making process, the surgeries… but in the end, my motivation for writing the book and publishing it was a shared journey of change and support.
One emotion that you seemed to struggle with a lot during your battle with cancer is anger. At the same time, you describe in your book the issue of transference and the emotions that were really underlying the anger. Did the fact that you were aware of that make it any easier to deal with?
As one learns, attitude and behaviour sometimes bear no resemblance to each other! While it was clear as time went on that I recognized I was transferring a lot of my anger onto friends and family, it still remained difficult at times to break the pattern of behaviour. It also is likely that anger is nothing more than fear masquerading as anger. Anger is so much more familiar an emotion, and it is associated with behaviour that often lets us release some of the feelings — like ranting and raving! But finally recognizing that a lot of my anger was making its way into my everyday life and recognizing that a lot of the anger was indeed really fear, did, in the end, make it understandable and therefore a little easier to deal with.
In your book, you describe reaching the point where you realized that wigs were not for your own comfort, but rather for the comfort of people around you. You also raised an interesting point in questioning why we don’t see more bald women in public when 1 in 9 are expected to develop breast cancer during their lifetime. Do you think we will start seeing more women who are undergoing chemotherapy leaving their wigs at home? What can be done to lessen the stigma?
I believe that we are seeing more women and men who are beginning to make the decision not to wear their wigs. My intent however was not to be a role model and appear to be saying “ditch your wigs!” My walking around bald was essentially me coming to terms with this is how I looked and this is indeed how women and men on chemotherapy look. If I was comfortable with my physical appearance, then that was really all that mattered. Men and women having treatment should do what makes them feel comfortable and supported. Whether that translates into wearing a wig or not is their personal decision.
What have your kids taught you through this experience that you might not have learned on your own or from another adult?
My children, more than anyone else, taught me the importance of having your emotional commitments match your physical commitments. It is not enough to want to be there — you need to physically be there as well. My children taught me that if something is a priority, then make sure you indeed treat it that way.
In your Globe and Mail column, you discuss a release from a stress-management company which linked breast cancer to professional women and their stressful lifestyles — naming yourself, Wendy Mesley and Beverly Thomson as examples. Do you think this notion of stress causing cancer is more often applied to women as somewhat of a sexist notion? Like women who try to “do it all” are somehow not designed to cope with stress?
I never looked at it as a sexist notion. I was more concerned that patients with cancer were somehow being given the message that the disease was their fault. I also was outraged at the assumption that a stranger who did not know me could judge my life as being stressful. Fact is, I love everything I do and never complained of being stressed. But even more importantly, there is absolutely no scientific data that stress causes cancer.
In the book, you give some insight into which gestures of support had a positive impact when you were undergoing your treatment, and which had a negative impact. Were you consciously intending to educate family and friends of cancer patients who often struggle with not knowing what to do?
I was simply reflecting what did and did not help; I certainly do not have any answers, just reflections of how I felt. It is clear that we often do not know how to support, and often, as in my case, at times I was so unhappy and angry that I did not want any kind of support. While this is not a template of either treatment, support or management, it is my story. And while I do see myself as an educator, I certainly do not have the answers at all. I found, however, that I appreciated when people were sensitive to me and did not inflict themselves on me and respected my personal space. But I also learned that in accepting support, you in turn, support those around you.
And finally, I’m going to have to ask about the friend’s husband who came over to massage your feet on Thursdays. That was definitely creative support. Is he still coming over?
Much to my dismay, my foot-massaging friend has returned to his busy law practice. But I have let him know that my feet sorely miss our visits together; and yes — what creative support!