Lee Pettersen’s Story

“My story begins in June of 2008, in a way that is familiar to many of you. I was married to a great guy living a pretty normal life. Leif was a former CFL football player, as well as a TSN broadcaster. He was a star, and I played a supporting role as Mom, driver of children, gardener, and renovation diva. When a friend called to ask if I would join the Ride to Conquer Cancer in support of a pal recently diagnosed with cancer, I said, absolutely. Niagara Falls didn’t seem that far by car, and I had ridden a bike when the girls were small. That phone call changed my life forever. Leif’s words of encouragement were forever etched in my brain. He said: “Are you nuts?” I became a Biker Babe, stronger, mentally and physically, and I was healthy, or so I thought.

Six weeks later, Leif died of a heart attack. He was 57. With the help of family, friends and my little blue Trek road bike, which Leif had surprised me with, I cried and rode my way through the shock and grief. By the following spring, I was starting to feel normal again; skiing, laughing and spending time with amazingly supportive friends.

In March of 2009, seven and a half months later, that all changed at my annual physical. In a heartbeat I became ‘Mom who has cancer – a terminal cancer’. It was a terrible, chaotic time. I worried about my girls and how they were going to manage without parents, and I had a horrible thought; I would never be able to wear the gorgeous red Italian shoes I had purchased the day before! A shrink would have a fieldday with that one! The next few days were filled with tears, and even a few laughs as I prepared to die – even so far as cleaning out my underwear drawer – that is kind of a girl thing!

Off I went to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for my introductory visit. The first doctor who examined me, asked: “Why do you think you are at Princess Margaret?” I replied: “Because I’m a goner; I have ovarian cancer and I only have a few weeks to live.” He was quite startled and said: “We don’t use that term here”. He then said that he had seen many very sick people, and I was going to be around a lot longer than 2 weeks! It was the beginning of my love for Princess Margaret. I had walked in without a future, and walked out with HOPE.

When I walked into Dr. Joan Murphy’s office at Princess Margaret in March of 2009, I was the typical, terrified, ‘deer in the headlights’ patient – frozen in fear. My life was already in chaos, with the death of my husband preceding my diagnosis by a mere 8 months. I had listened to the accolades thrown his way, and the recitation of his accomplishments and contributions, and I had decided that if I died then and there, I would be anonymous. I had done little more than go to work and raise two lovely daughters. After Leif’s death, I vowed to change that. This cancer business was definitely a monkey wrench in my new life plan. So there I was, sitting across from Dr. Murphy, totally convinced I was a goner. There would be no Christmas for me in 2009. But Dr. Murphy changed all that. On April 1st, 2009, she and her team of skilled accomplices set about to snip and toss, and cut and throw away every single bit of cancer they could find, closed me up and started me on my first round of six rounds of chemotherapy – my journey of HOPE.

So there I was, sitting across from Dr. Murphy, totally convinced I was a goner. There would be no Christmas for me in 2009. But Dr. Murphy changed all that.

Have I mentioned Zain up in the Wig Salon at Princess Margaret? For a woman with long blonde hair, and a slew of healthy friends, hair loss was very BIG, but when I met Zain, my fear  disappeared. He walked me out of the salon with a gorgeous wig, which took the patient out of the mirror and put Lee back in it.

Mid June, I participated in my first Ride to Conquer Cancer as a patient, in the middle of my chemotherapy. Why did I do that? Because Dr. Joan Murphy, a fellow cyclist, said to me: “Just do it!” She kick started my life as a cancer patient, and my strong belief in looking ahead for the pinprick of light, instead of looking down into the darkness.

The 2009 and 2010 rides were in the middle of my chemo, but both were doable, thanks to the support of my fabulous team, and the knowledge that I was doing something to help myself – to help find that magic elixir that would prolong my life. And that is what the Ride to Conquer Cancer means to me.

There is a moment in time from the 2009 ride that stands out. I was riding along, with my head down, taking it easy, when I started up THAT hill – the legendary hill from the first ride. I really didn’t see how I was going to make it on my bike, or even by foot. Then I felt a hand on my back. Teammate, Doug Palmer, a two time cancer  survivor, had come back down from THAT hill, placed his hand on my back, and pushed me all the way up!

April 2nd, 2010, I was officially a one year cancer survivor! I was feeling better than ever. I was happy, healthy and doing every possible thing a normal person does. It made me want to leap about hugging and kissing everyone. I was living my life to the fullest. Every day, I will never have a regret that I have wasted a moment or an opportunity. In the last several months, I had been to Florida, Turkey, and to Vancouver to attend the Olympics. I had been to Puerto Vallarta, and in two weeks I was flying to Arizona, to try my hand at being a cowgirl for a week at a dude ranch. No pity parties for me please.

In May of 2010, when my cancer got busy again, I left Dr. Murphy’s care and headed over to the BRAS Drug Development centre. When I said ‘goodbye’, I promised Dr. Murphy I would live a ‘three for one’ lifestyle. If I had a chance to live up to five years, I reasoned, I wanted it to feel like fifteen. She agreed with that theory, and urged me to come out of the gate running; to travel and laugh and dance, to wear my red shoes at every opportunity, and that is how I am living my life now. Squeezing every drop of joy out of each day.

If I had a chance to live up to five years, I reasoned, I wanted it to feel like fifteen.

I sat across from Dr. Amit Oza of the Bras Drug Development Program, wanting to shout out: “I have serious ovarian cancer”. I was scared. As Dr. Oza shares with me the soon to be announced clinical trial, for which I am, thankfully a candidate, I numbly listen trying to think of good questions to ask. I really wanted to ask if there was a chance of a cure, but I did not. If you are not sure you are going to like the answer, never ask the question! I have been absorbing all the information that Dr. Oza presented, and like a dog with a bone, I grabbed onto the phrase – ‘because you are fit’, which seemed to precede the list of clinical trials coming up.

On June 1st, 2010, I entered my first clinical trial. I was in the control arm of the trial, where I received the standard drug. I was okay in the control arm, because as Dr. Oza explained, the drug looked very promising, and might be offered to patients in the control arm later on compassionate grounds. The treatment did reduce my tumours by 30%, but by July 2011, the growth crept up again, so I was off the trial. We opted to wait and watch.

The next clinical trial I entered in November of 2011, was the MK1775 trial, made available due to testing of my tumour tissue, which revealed a mutated P53 gene. I was not in the control arm of this trial. The trial kept the cancer in a low level of activity for nine months, but I was losing weight, as I had difficulty eating, and keeping down the little I did consume. At the end of nine months, my CA 125 began to slowly climb, indicating increased activity.

In August of 2012, Dr. Oza offered me an opportunity to enter a phase 111 randomized double blind trial. I was given Taxol plus AMG386/placebo weekly, and my symptoms began to subside immediately. I felt better, allowing me to enjoy the best possible quality of life, with loads of energy. I now ski, snowshoe, hike, ride horses, travel extensively and cycle regularly, as I train for my 7th 200km Ride to Conquer Cancer. This trial has given me one and a half wonderful years. I realize it will not ‘cure’ my cancer, but I believe in the eighteen months since I began this trial, more promising treatments are in the works. It is because of, and thanks to the ongoing research, much of which has been funded with dollars raised by events, such as: the Ride to Conquer Cancer, the Run or Walk to Conquer Cancer, Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer and the Believe in Fashion show for the BRAS Drug Development Program, that I am alive today.

The key ingredient in this story is HOPE. I get a big dose of HOPE with every single visit.

The key ingredient in this story is HOPE. I get a big dose of HOPE with every single visit. Dr. Amit Oza, my oncologist; Gerry Prendergast, and Valerie Bowering, my clinical trials nurses’ and team, ‘shine’ in the hope department. Never forget: Hope fuels the drive to survive.

Well here we are five years after my mega surgery, and the removal of many body parts, and attachments. I have never once felt lonely, without help, or helpless, and the one word that keeps coming to my mind, is gratitude. I am so very lucky. I have the most incredible family, a man in my life whom I love deeply, and who loves me in return. I have waves upon waves of friends. Since I go to Princess Margaret weekly, I have made new friends there as well. Fellow patients in the same clinical trials, with whom I compare results and share hope; lab technicians who take my blood, tell me about their families, and ask about life at Blue Mountain; chemo daycare nurses, manning the ‘spa chairs’, are absolutely over the top wonderful, and I often ask if they can   arrange a manicure/pedicure while I am in for the day! Cancer doesn’t even get to own me those four hours in the chair, thanks to those lovely, kind people. I realize my life is full of such  extraordinary people. I have already lived the richest most rewarding life possible, and every extra day is simply gravy. The trial I am on has given me so much: I am symptom free, I have hope and I have my life back.”

Lee Pettersen