​​​​​​It All Started at The Drake Hotel is a five-part series chronicling one woman's cancer experience. Elizabeth Abraham gives us an uncut, uncensored version of her breast cancer story – and how food, family, friends and a little bit of Prosecco can go a long way.

Image of Elizabeth with friend Harold Van Johnson
Elizabeth stands with friend Harold Van Johnson as she finishes her final Chemo Dance and proudly rings the bell at the Princess Margaret. (Photo: PMH Chemo Daycare Nurse)

As the drama of the spinal cord surgery ebbed, we returned to the improvisational dance of cancer. I say "we" meaning myself, my children, my family, my friends. Cancer touches everyone. I say dance because the disease is not a war.

Did you miss part three? Click here to read​.

Towards the end of my week-long hospital stay post-spinal cord surgery, an occupational therapist visited daily to help me learn to walk again, with a walker. I spent the next three weeks at home, horizontal, recovering from a cerebral spinal fluid leak and regaining strength and mobility, walking with assistance (i.e., a cane and one of my children) two or three times a day.  

After the bandages came off, I could no longer wear a beanie over my bald head. The incision, from beneath my crown to my upper back, was red and raw and had to be exposed to air.  My vanity surrendered to the incision.

A few short weeks after my surgery, I was told I had to keep my appointment with my medical oncologist, Eitan Amir. My children brought me to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

They were saving a spot for a chemotherapy appointment for me the following day, but when Eitan entered the consultation room and saw me and my cane, he said, "You're not having chemotherapy tomorrow.  But we want you back as soon as possible. I'll schedule your next treatment in two weeks."

I flew to New York on August 3rd with a few flimsy summer dresses, undergarments, toiletries and medications, all together under 10 pounds—the limit according to my neurosurgeon, Michael Fehlings.

I was able to see my sister, Gillian Apfel, before she left for a hardship post in Baghdad with the U.S. State Department, and the rest of my family, who all flew in for her Hello/Goodbye party. It's hard to get all (or most) of the Abrahams in one place, and it's always wonderful when it happens. 

Image of Elizabeth with her dad, Dr. Carl Abraham
Elizabeth stands with her dad, Dr. Carl Abraham Sr. (Photo: Dr. Carl Abraham Jr.)

And so as the drama of the spinal cord surgery ebbed, we returned to the improvisational dance of cancer. 

'Cancer is a dance, not a war'

I say "we" meaning myself, my children, my family and my friends. Cancer touches everyone. I say dance because the disease is not a war. I'm not fighting cancer. I'm dancing with it. I'm learning new steps all the time, meeting practitioners with alternative, integrative approaches, learning how to bolster my immune system, stimulating my pineal gland with joyful, pleasurable experiences, which in turn suppresses cortisol from my adrenal gland—at least according to neuroendoimmunologist and oncologist Paolo Lissoni.

I'm not warring against cancer. I'm conditioning my immune system.

I was a sight at Chemo Daycare at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for Dance number 4. Bald, with an incision down the back of my head, neck, and upper back, yet dressed up for a cocktail party. 

One of my goals throughout the experience was to maintain a modicum of dignity. I always dressed up in party clothes or, at least, business casual. 

I had an entourage for Chemo Dance 4: both of my children, Solomon and Emily, and my nieces, Gaby and Cori, who had returned from New York with me. The nurses were very kind and gave us a private room. 

After the needle was inserted – as Emily blasted T. Rex's Get It On (Bang a Gong) in my earphones –Gaby brought out the bean and cheese quesadillas she had prepared at home, with all the sides in separate containers: salsa, sour cream, guacamole. The containers were placed on my blanket-covered legs, which served as a table. 

We opened a bottle of Prosecco and drank from paper hospital cups.  We ate, listened to music, chatted and laughed. It was my favourite chemo day.

I left for Winnipeg – my birthday present from my bestie, Jane – between Chemo Dances 4 and 5. My arrival at the airport may have shocked Jane and her daughter: a bald woman with a fresh crop of stubble in a flashy, low cut dress. Yet Jane and Julia were all smiles.

It was a healing week: delicious, home-cooked meals, long talks over coffee or wine (depending on the time of day), and lazy days on the beaches of Lake Winnipeg. I reinterpreted the labels on my medication: where it indicated "Avoid prolonged sun exposure," I read "Enjoy prolonged sun exposure."

I had been asked, on the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, if I had Eastern European Jewish heritage. I do. The nurse suggested I consider genetic testing, to see if I carry one of the genes that exponentially increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. I'd had the counselling and testing done in June,

On one of the beach days in Winnipeg, I got a call from 'Unknown', which is always the hospital, and it was my genetic counselor with my BRCA results.

Negative!

After the tears, it was time for more Prosecco on the beach.

Image of Elizabeth (left) visits friends Bonnie Heath and Jane Langes
Elizabeth (left) visits friends Bonnie Heath and Jane Langes in Winnipeg. On one of the beach days, she received a phone call from the hospital: BRCA Negative! (Photo: Julia Jumaga)

Laughter is a powerful healing agent.  Jane is an exceptional storyteller and regularly brings me, and others, to tears. The sparse stubble on my head grew several millimeters that week from pure joy. Jane and I are sisters, really, and we regret that we don't live in the same city. It was difficult to leave.

Back in Toronto, Emily, my regular chemo buddy, had to return to school before the end of chemotherapy. Her dad, composer Steph​en Parkinson, took a day off from work to accompany me to Chemo Dance 5 in late August.

 

​The last chemo dance

My partner for the last dance, on September 19, was my dear friend Harold Van Johnson, artist and self-trained chef.

I wore a peacock blue dress that my niece, Cori, insisted I buy when we were boutique shopping on Queen Street West, and accessorized with bright costume jewelry. Full make up, of course.  No heels -those days ended when I lost sensation in my feet – but elegant flats: strappy, gold-coloured leather straps over a leopard-print sole. 

 

I was sufficiently buzzed and calm as the last chemo needle was inserted and snaked up my vein. My daughter had convinced me, over the phone, to take two Ativan this time. Harold and I chatted away as the medication entered my vein through a pump. Harold is terribly good-natured, practical, wise and hilarious. The time flew.​

When I was unhooked for the last time, I had the honour of ringing the big brass bell to celebrate the end of chemo!  Harold and I posed with the bell first, then he videotaped me as I rang, watching me with a giant smile on his face. 

I rang that bell as though I was warning the townspeople of an oncoming rebel insurgence.  I rang that bell as though I just won a gold medal at a world competition. I rang that bell believing, in my heart, that I would never, ever come back. The staff in the unit gathered and applauded. I thanked them all. I cried with relief, leaving chemotherapy in the past.

 

Image of Elizabeth's Family
Left to right: Stacy Abraham, Gabrielle Abraham, Gillian Apfel, Carl Abraham, Patty Abraham, Corinne Abraham, Leo Tomkins, me, Lauren Apfel and Scott Abraham. (photo: Dr. Deb Zane)


Stay tuned for the final installment of It All Started at The Drake Hotel: part five. Elizabeth receives life-changing news.

*Special thanks to Elizabeth for sharing her story with such wit, elegance and candour.​

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