From Alaska to cancer; the next adventure

Alaska: a place known for gold rushes, bald eagles and dogsledding. With its nearly 55,000 km of tidal shoreline and 42,000 square km of land encased in glacial ice, Alaska is a place for adventures. Two summers ago, I went on that adventure — with my 85-year-old grandmother.

Alaska was the first place to visit on my bucket list. Having grown up addicted to Balto, a children’s movie based on a sled dog that led the last leg of the 1925 serum run to Nome, I had always wanted to go dogsledding in Alaska. And there was my nana, offering to take me.

So you can bet we made the best of it.

On Jan. 13, I received a text from my mom with the inevitable-bad-news phrase, “Call me when you get a chance to talk.”


Author Shannon Baldwin (right), poses with her grandmother on Alaskan cruise ship. (Shannon Baldwin/The Ryersonian)

From cocktail mixology lessons and acupuncture on the cruise ship to salmon bakes and whale watching in Juneau, my nana and I did everything together. We spent so much time on nature excursions at every port that the once exciting-to-spot bald eagle became the common seagull of Alaska to us.

I had done so well at getting her on board with my Alaskan-adventure mindset that Nana even agreed to fly in a floatplane with me. But ironically, that day the Misty Fjords were too misty for takeoff.

It was an adventure full of wildlife, history and natural wonders, and it was all because she allowed me to be at her side to accompany her. An excursion that I, as a student — which I wouldn’t be without her generosity — would otherwise never have been able to experience at that point in my life.

And it is time for me to be at her side once more for one last adventure.

On Jan. 13, I received a text from my mom with the inevitable-bad-news phrase, “Call me when you get a chance to talk.”

My grandmother had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Like many elderly people who feel they have lived a full life, she decided that if the only treatment option were chemotherapy, she would not take it. She would live out her days the way her body intended.

Colorectal cancer is the second most common cause of cancer death in Canadians, and Canada has one of the highest colorectal cancer survival rates in the world. Canadian Cancer Statistics 2011, published by the Canadian Cancer Society, estimates that colorectal cancer was responsible for 8,900 deaths in 2011. That’s about 12 per cent of all cancer deaths that year.


Baldwin’s grandmother was diagnosed with colon caner earlier this month. (Shannon Baldwin/The Ryersonian)

People 70 years or older have a higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer. Just over 40 per cent of new cases are found in people from that age group and 59 per cent of those are terminal.

While being able to list the statistical likelihood of my grandmother either surviving or dying from cancer may seem morbid, that is not why I am sharing this information.

In the next 20 years, one in eight of the world’s population will be over the age of 65. The website estimates that the number of senior citizens (65 years and older) will more than double to 4.1 million — just over 23 per cent of Ontario’s population — by 2036. And as early as two years from now, for the first time, this age group will “account for a larger share of population than children aged 0-14.”

She decided that if the only treatment option were chemotherapy, she would not take it. She would live out her days the way her body intended.

Since cancer primarily affects people 50 years and older — “88 per cent of all new cases and 95 per cent of cancer deaths,” according to the Canadian Cancer Statistics 2011 — the increase of seniors will likely mean an increase in the number of such diagnoses.

Colon cancer is among the most common types of cancer and almost half the people diagnosed with it are elderly. But elderly people are rarely chosen for clinical trials, which forces them and their doctors to rely “on subgroup analysis, observational studies and personal experiences to guide recommendations” according to an American study by doctors Christina Wu and Richard M. Goldberg.

Since survival rates steadily decrease after the age of 70 and there is a lack of colon cancer research in elderly people, it is not surprising that my 87-year-old nana would opt out of chemotherapy.

My nana has lived a full and wonderful life. She went from growing up on a farm to studying at the University of Ottawa and working for the government. She spent more than 50 years married to the love of her life and was highly involved in many organizations, such as the Engineers’ Wives Association of Ottawa. She had two daughters and four grandchildren whom she continues to spoil with her famous apple pie.

She will tell you she has lived a full life. But being elderly should not be a reason to brush aside the need for clinical trials or be used as an excuse to forfeit one’s life.

While I was in Alaska I did get to go dogsledding. I stood on the landing pad in Skagway as my helicopter flew in. I had the same excitement that dates on The Bachelor get when they see a helicopter coming in to land. That was my ride to the top of a glacier where I would get to go dogsledding with a real team in the middle of August.

To this day, this is the greatest experience I have ever had and it was the one excursion my grandmother was unable to do. But that didn’t stop her from sharing in my excitement or sharing in the retelling of my stories as if they were her own.

Like most things in life, you can’t always be there for the important moments. While dealing with cancer is not at all the same as going dogsledding, this is a big moment in her life that I am missing.

As a student in Toronto, I can’t be in Ottawa to sit with my nana as she hears updates about her cancer or comes out of surgery. And I won’t be there when she finds out the results from her biopsy that determines the stage of cancer she has.

As her granddaughter, it is hard to see my remaining grandmother fall ill and it is easy to want to tell her to hold on and take the treatments. But that’s not what I am going to do. I will support my nana, no matter what she decides to do. Just as she shared in my excitement, I will share in her happiness or sorrow.


This story also appeared in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on Feb 4, 2015.

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