Canada’s latest public health guidelines recently changed to two drinks per week—news that I read, ironically, while I sipped my second glass of Prosecco. Alcohol is linked to increased cancer risk, which isn’t ideal when you have a family medical history like mine. I finished reading the article, slurped my drink and set to cooking dinner, which I briefly considered had an over abundance of carbs and red meat. Was that risky, too?
This new drink recommendation, in the middle of a global pandemic, has many of us questioning how healthy we really are. What can we do to be better, live longer, stave off the lapsing of time? For others, the news is fear mongering in a world that desperately needs its simple pleasures.
I’ve tried to take a measured approach. My family and I are the perfect example of both doing all the right things for the body and somehow still ending up with the most dreaded of diagnoses, so we’ve always joked that there must have been something in our water. Both of my parents have had different forms of cancer—Mom at 40, Dad at 56—and in 2006, my mom was diagnosed with advanced multiple sclerosis. But it’s my sister, Meghan, who drew the shortest straw with two rare forms of cancer in her lifetime.
I was born in the shadow of Meghan’s childhood kidney cancer, which thankfully, after years of treatment, was battled into remission. It was me, though, who grew up terrified of illness, of throwing up, of one day dying from what almost killed my sister, which wasn’t ameliorated by the diagnoses of both parents later in my life. Prone to nervousness, I spent all my time assuming my fate was sealed, that cancer would kill me, and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.
My response was to exert control over everything within my sphere, resulting in OCD, anxiety and depression. I cooked all my healthy, veggie-laden food to cinder status, and stuffed my purse with a pharmaceutical cocktail of Gravol and Pepto Bismol and later, Ativan. I refused public transit whenever possible, obsessively sanitized my hands before it was considered en vogue and lived a law-abiding, orderly life that didn’t tempt providence.
In contrast, Meghan moved through the world as though there were no consequences, which I both admired and feared. She also treated her body like a garbage can, filling it with drugs and junk food. I often wondered if this was her response to having danced so close to death—everything felt possible. When Meghan discovered she had a rare soft tissue cancer the day after she gave birth to her daughter, I worried that she should have taken better care of herself. If only. If only she’d taken a multivitamin, exercised, made a meal outside of the microwave once in a while, would we have still found ourselves in the oncologists’ office, gripping one another’s hand?
Typical for me, I launched into a plan to heal her, to control, to fix. My wellness-obsessed husband’s kale smoothies, of course. YouTube exercise videos sent by text. I made her so much damn bone broth and ordered her endless bars of organic soap, free of parabens and sulfates and whatever else might kill her.
Because of the prevalence of unique cancers across our immediate family, a geneticist suggested that my parents, Meghan and I do testing to see if we’d inherited genetic mutations that might increase health risks for Meghan’s two children. Given the chance to protect them, we offered up our medical histories without asking what they were even looking for. Faced with the possibility of answers that might quell my health anxiety, the flipside was knowledge that might send me into a panic tailspin.
What we discovered was that none of us had genetic predispositions to health problems—we were simply, as the doctor said, “rather unlucky.” I was told that I carry the Alzheimer’s gene; but that doesn’t mean I’ll get the disease, only that I’m predisposed. I was also diagnosed with celiac disease, so no more self-soothing with croissants and cake. As for the cancers, the doctor made it clear that there was nothing to be done for any of us, other than to continue living. Due to my mom’s breast cancer, I started receiving annual mammograms at 35—early by medical standards—but otherwise, all the kale in the world can’t fix bad luck.
For me, there was no big sigh of relief with the doctor’s news, nor was there an instant flip to a laissez-faire Kelly who does not exist. Instead, it was my sister’s illness that served as the antidote to my years of worry, because what I owed to her was a life well-lived, not one spent in perpetual panic. My fear and attempted control hadn’t changed the trajectory of her disease, and it won’t change mine, either.
A year after the tumour was found, doctors told Meghan she had four months to live, and she immediately returned to the McDonald’s and sugar-filled coffee drinks she preferred. “If I’m going to die anyways, might as well go happy,” she’d say, dunking another chicken nugget in barbecue sauce. She died in 2018, at 37 years old.
Since she died, I remain an impossibly anxious person, despite years of therapy and medication. I also struggle with more autoimmune diseases, namely rheumatoid arthritis. But in witnessing Meghan’s death, I learned how much there is to gain from living. Really living. Drinking the glass of wine and eating the pasta and sitting on the couch bingeing smutty television. In a world that carries so much darkness, I take the rays of brilliance where I can find them, and sometimes that’s at the bottom of a jar of Nutella. Fretting endlessly over the countless what ifs robs the joy from those pleasures enjoyed in moderation, and online research about possible diagnoses doesn’t offer me any agency to change the facts.
While I still exercise and eat relatively well, I also spend more time taking care of my heart—the metaphorical one. A study conducted by Harvard in 2017 showed that connections to loved ones are equal predictors of longevity and happiness as extreme fitness measures. And so, I live with a new understanding of balance. I do what I can to mitigate illnesses but I focus on cuddling people I love, embracing my cellulite and loving my new wrinkles.
I’m not destined to die of cancer, but I will, one day, die, as we all will. I can only strive to approach that day—or be surprised by it—with a sense of having fully been present in this world. So while my big sister taught me a lot of things, the greatest was that it’s okay to be nervous, but life should be embraced with arms flung open to the possibilities. It’ll be a ride, regardless.