L-R: Denise McInnes, Lonnie Saliken, Anne Haigh and Suzanne Simard formed a unique support group that has turned into a deep friendship. Photo: Tyler Harper

Breastless Friends Forever: How breast cancer brought four B.C. women together

They met during chemotherapy. Now they’re inseparable

Lonnie Saliken misses her wig.

It was hot and itchy, but she preferred it to her own hair and even once told a stylist to shave her head so she could stick with the wig. Hair, she decided after chemotherapy, was annoying. Wigs were easy.

“All you had to do was shake it and put it on and off you go,” she says.

Everyone, of course, has an opinion about the wigs.

Suzanne Simard was self conscious about being bald until Saliken pressed her to take off their wigs one sweltering day in the privacy of Simard’s Vancouver condo. After that she preferred a toque.

Anne Haigh only briefly wore the wig, and Denise McInnes never used it at all. “I had a lot of compliments that I looked good in my baldness,” says McInnes.

Reminiscing about hair, or the lack thereof, is one of the ways these four woman who affectionately refer to themselves as the BFFs (Breastless Friends Forever) have come together for the last six years to recover from the shared trauma of breast cancer. What began as individual, lonely pain has turned into what Saliken, Simard, Haigh and McInnes describe as an indispensable part of their lives.

Once a month they meet in Simard’s Nelson home. They sit on the couches Simard and Saliken use to lie on and groan at each other during chemo. They talk it out in ways that their partners, their children, their friends will never hear or understand.

“These guys changed me,” says McInnes. “I was a very quiet, private [person], not able to express my real emotional feelings. They opened me up. Anne gave me a big hug the first time I met her. Nobody in my life has ever done that.”

Breast cancer survivors groups aren’t unique, but the inclusiveness of the BFFs is. That might be because their friendship began in the same lonely place.

Simard describes the chemo room at Kootenay Lake Hospital as an intimate space. There are curtains for privacy, but everyone hears each other.

“You hear [the doctor] saying things like, ‘There’s nothing more we can do for you,’” says Simard. “I remember this one young guy had lymphoma. He didn’t get that message. He was 19 or something and wanted to know if he could go snowboarding the next day.”

On Jan. 15, 2013, a date so important to Simard she can recall it instantly, she walked into the chemo room for an appointment and was annoyed to find someone in her preferred chair. The woman was Haigh, who the BFFs affectionately refer to as their matriarch and soon became close with Simard.

While she was undergoing chemo, Haigh was also caring for her husband Dan who was disabled and hospitalized. On the morning of March 27, Haigh went to the hospital for her third chemo treatment. Then she went upstairs to Dan, who passed away that afternoon.

Haigh, who at 75 is the oldest of the group by 18 years, downplays the significance of the day.

“It was difficult, but you get through it. Whatever comes up, put your big girl pants on. … It’s not like we’re heroic. These heroic battles with cancer? Did anybody volunteer to be a hero? No. We’re stuck with it. So make the best of it.”

She made the best of it. Haigh started leaning on Simard, who had been on what’s referred to as dose-dense treatment that calls for chemotherapy every two weeks instead of three. Simard’s doctor asked her to speak with another patient about the dose-dense schedule. That patient, it turned out, was Saliken.

The trio were already undergoing treatment when McInnes first met them. She was initially diagnosed in February 2013, and remembers walking into the hospital’s chemo room for the first time to see Simard sporting what the group describes as “the iconic chemo look.” That is to say, pale skin, no hair, no energy, no life.

“I just burst into tears because it was so frightening to me to see that,” says McInnes.

McInnes later ran into Simard and Saliken at a survivors group. Eventually, the four women began meeting in Simard’s Nelson home.

Conversation isn’t limited to cancer, but the disease is central to the friendship. Everything is on the table, no matter how dark the topic, because the fear of recurrence never goes away. Every unexplained ache, every scar in the mirror is a reminder of what happened.

It’s not just paranoia. McInnes was diagnosed with cancer in her other breast in 2015. Haigh has recently been waiting for test results on a bump near her armpit.

“I would like to say I’ve reached this nirvana and I’m above that now,” says Simard. “But the fact of the matter is we don’t want to die. We’re just like everybody else. We know that we’ve been closer to death than most people but we still want to live.

“When these scares come up, we’re just as scared. We’re more scared because we know what we have to go through.”

Getting that point across to someone who has never had cancer can be difficult. Friends and family don’t know what it’s like to have teeth ache during chemo, to lose the sense of taste, to constantly forget names of loved ones.

They want reassurance, even if it feels like a lie. Sometimes they don’t want to talk at all, and that can be for the best.

“I had one lady tell me, ‘Well, at least you know that your body makes cancer,’” says Saliken, prompting a laugh from the other BFFs. “I’ll never forget that.”

“Or they’ll say, ‘Has it come back yet?’” adds Simard.

During recovery the BFFs met two or three times a week. Now they are limited to monthly meetings in person because Simard works in the Lower Mainland, but they are always texting each other.

When it’s time to meet, everything else gets dropped. Because even though the physical and emotional trauma of surviving breast cancer may never go away, the BFFs are also thankful for the disease. It gave them each other.

“This is the gift,” said Haigh. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful gift that came out of what seemed at the time like a disaster, a catastrophe. But look where we’ve come. We couldn’t have ended up better. If I had to do it over again I’d do it in a heart beat knowing that this was going to be the outcome.”

Related:

B.C. breast cancer survivor to help others with cost of removing lymphoma-linked implants

B.C. oncologist changing the face of breast cancer treatment



tyler.harper@nelsonstar.com

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