Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, the fiercely courageous breast cancer survivor Linda West, inspired leader of the Wild Wild Breast. First diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003, Linda is a portrait in what it takes to not only survive but also thrive in the face of a devastating diagnosis. At the steady and gifted hand of her Oncologist, Dr. Vanessa Bernstein, Linda was blessed with a successful treatment journey, followed by close to ten years of regular check-ups. Linda’s life had seemingly returned to normal. Then, during a golf game in the fall of 2016, Linda was suddenly unable to catch her breath, and was rushed to the ER. This time, it was another life-changing diagnosis: Stage IV breast cancer that had spread to her liver, bones, and brain. After trying several different chemotherapies, Dr. Bernstein recommended two innovative therapies that have saved Linda’s life, keeping her cancer at bay. To put things into perspective as to the kind of strength, tenacity, perseverance, determination and sheer grit it takes to beat this disease, since 2016 Linda has gone to 276 medical appointments. “Today, I am doing fantastic,” says Linda. “I am going for long walks, golfing, entertaining and making the best of my life.” And to that we say a joyous grateful powerful and triumphant YES!
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
Surviving Breast Cancer for 18 years (so far!)
What happened in March of 2003 that completely changed your life?
I was so excited, having just come home from Thailand. My boyfriend, Ron, and I had decided that I would move to Victoria to live with him. I decided to ask for a leave of absence from my job as I had worked there for 26 years and was nervous in case things didn’t work out.
I had found a lump on my right breast so I went to my family doctor and he reassured me that it would likely just be a cyst and they’d drain it. A few days later he told me it was cancer. I had a biopsy and it was also in 13 out of 15 lymph nodes.
I told them at work about the diagnosis and the HR Manager was so kind. He said, “we’re rescinding your leave and you’ll be fully paid.”
So I moved to Victoria from the little apartment I’d lived in for 10 years in Vancouver.
Why do you feel lucky to have met Dr. Vanessa Bernstein?
Dr. Bernstein was my Oncologist in 2003. She is so caring and worked so hard to treat me. She also talked to her colleagues to see if there was anything she may not have thought of when my drugs stopped working. In 2016, when my cancer returned, I was so lucky to get her again.
What did you do at the Justice Institute of BC and was it difficult to continue working after your diagnosis?
I was the Administrative Supervisor of Facilities. Shortly after moving to Victoria, they opened a JIBC Victoria Campus and asked if I would run it, I happily agreed. They were so good to me. As I was having treatment I wouldn’t always be able to work and I was able to use all my sick time and holiday leave so I didn’t lose any income. They were so flexible.
Tell us about the two clinical trials you took part in and the affect they had on the treatment of breast cancer.
I took part in two clinical trials – one was Herceptin, which was so good that they ended the trial and put all HER2+ patients on it. I’ve also been on brand new drugs that worked quite well.
After you were ‘released’ in 2013, and out of the woods so to speak, how did you keep the fear that it might return at bay?
Every year I’d worry but after 10 years I felt like we’d beat it and I was breathing easy. I had always thought that 10 years was the “magic number” but it’s not. There is no number where they consider you cured.
What happened in October 2016 that rocked your world?
I was having a nice day golfing with my husband and two of his friends. I had walked down to the lady’s tee box when I suddenly couldn’t catch my breath. We called the pro shop and our Pro Jimmy raced over and picked me up and called an ambulance. They took me to the hospital and ran some tests but didn’t find anything.
I thought maybe it was pneumonia and went for more tests. The ER Doctor came in and said, “You’re going to have to call the cancer doctor.” Turned out it had metastasized to my lungs, bones, liver and brain!
In 2016 they had to do five sessions of full brain radiation. (We have a brain barrier that chemo can’t cross.) It wasn’t that painful but I lost all my hair and it’s never come back. However, with the money I’ve saved at salons and on hair products, I’ve been able to buy a number of nice wigs!
To cheer everyone up after this diagnosis, Ron and I decided to get married. It was something positive to focus on. We had a lovely small backyard wedding. My sister Jacquie and best friend Kate helped arrange it – everything from choosing my dress, the menu, helping set up and just being supportive for the whole thing. My mum and dad walked me down the “aisle.” Danielle Bennett and Melanie Baird of the Feel Good Campaign gave me a complimentary hair and make-up. I felt beautiful.
What was your Hail Mary?
My Hail Mary was finding new drugs that we hadn’t tried yet. Otherwise, without those I was given 2-4 weeks survival.
How do you find joy and where do you look for hope?
I became a volunteer at the Cancer Society, working in the gift shop. It’s important to give back.
Who’s in your circle of support?
My husband, first and foremost, and all my family is a huge support. My parents (in their 90s) came to every chemo treatment! I received daily messages, people checking in, cards, and flowers. So many thoughtful people. One day, my sister-in-law and her friends came over and totally cleaned our house.
What’s Wild Wild Breast?
I formed a team for the CIBC Run for the Cure, my first year of cancer, and called it Wild Wild Breast. My last name is West and I used to do a lot of line dancing, as well as teach it, so someone suggested that and it fit. There were 20-26 people on my team and we were often in the top ten groups. We had ages from 2-95 taking part!
What’s the most important life lesson your Mom taught you?
Treat others, as you would want to be treated and never lie.
What would you say to your younger Girl Warrior?
Try to stay strong and positive. Don’t be afraid to let others help you. It’s good for both of you.
Who is/are your Girl Warrior hero(s) and why?
My niece Michele, who works and has two young children. Her husband works overseas so she has a lot of responsibility. She always has a smile on her face.
You’re a jar half full Girl Warrior. What’s the secret to your optimism?
Try to find something to be happy about and something to do every day.
Describe yourself in five words.
Determined, positive, kind, hopeful, strong.
If a Biopic were written about your life, what would it be called?
She Believed She Could so She Did.
To learn more about cancer research, and how you can help, head over to the BC Cancer Foundation website at: https://bccancerfoundation.com/
For more on breast cancer, and the CIBC Run for the Cure, go to the Canadian Cancer Society website at: https://action.cancer.ca/en/
And for information on BC Cancer, and the work they do, go to the website at: http://www.bccancer.bc.ca/