YARMOUTH, N.S. – Sandy Dennis was always the type of person to climb to the top of a ladder with a paintbrush in hand to spruce up a building.
There’s a bright yellow shed on Water Street in Yarmouth that’s proof of this.
If there was a veterans’ event in town, she was there with her camera to show her support.
It's that ‘C’ word she feels that really defines her – community.
Not the ‘C’ word she’s living with now – cancer.
“If you ask me what the hardest part of the cancer is, it’s that I can’t be out in the community,” she says. “This summer I would have been out painting buildings and doing stuff. Last year I thought that this year I’d be able to do that. And then I got stupid brain cancer. That’s the thing I miss the most. I miss the people.”
Dennis – a Yarmouth town councillor and former owner of Sandy’s Gifts – was diagnosed with cancer in February 2017.
“I was shocked. I went in with pains in my stomach. When they did the CAT Scan on my stomach they saw the mass on my lung. I had no idea that I had cancer,” she says.
“But I’m the type of person that just deals with everything.” She’ll take that one day to cry and then she moves on. “After that I deal with it, that’s just the type of person I am.”
She’s had a lot to deal with. Since her initial diagnosis the cancer has spread to her spine, bones, into both lungs, and she has two tumours on her brain. She is Stage 4 terminal.
Somedays she can function. Other times – and often for long stretches – she can’t function at all.
In a recent posting on social media she says the outlook last year was she had four to six months left. Truthfully, she doesn’t know how much time she has.
Asked if she hates cancer, her response may surprise you.
“I’ve never been angry. I’ve never said, ‘Why me?’ To me cancer is just like having a cold. This sounds kind of stupid, but I actually feel blessed that I have cancer,” she says, the emotion evident in her voice. “I feel that it gave me a way to help other people. I would never have known what people go through, and I wouldn’t have been able to advocate for them, if I didn’t know. So to me it’s a blessing. It’s like another chapter in my life.”
She’s used this chapter to be an advocate for others who perhaps don’t feel like they have a voice.
SPEAKING FOR OTHERS
Early on in her cancer journey, she brought the plight of others to the town council table, bringing forth a motion that the town write a letter to the Nova Scotia Health Authority urging it to consider Yarmouth as a location for radiation services. She says a council may not have the authority or the responsibility to provide health care, but it should be doing all it can to look out for the interests of its citizens.
She later watched and participated as a grassroots movement took shape on Facebook – the Western Nova Scotia Cancer Support Network – where people with cancer and their loved ones shared stories of their physical, emotional and financial hardships.
Dennis had already taken note of these stories while in Halifax meeting with oncologists.
“The thing I noticed as I started speaking to people was the amount of people from this end of the province that was there. It seemed like practically everybody was from this end of the province and they were telling me their story of how many trips there were, the costs.” She later experienced this when she had to be there in Halifax for seven weeks, with her husband Ken as her support person. The bills added up quickly.
“The sad part was there was people there who had no support people with them,” she says. “There was a lady 89 years old there by herself.”
And then she’d hear about people that didn’t do the treatments because they couldn’t afford to.
That truly broke her heart.
Dennis had a hard childhood growing up. She knew what it was like to be poor. To be shuffled around. By the age of 15 she was on her own. She believes this is why she’s always wanted to help others. And it’s why she has a ‘just deal with it’ approach to life. It's the reason for her community work. It’s why she speaks out for others.
She’s also been part of the steering team process that has been taking a comprehensive and thorough evaluation of whether radiation services could and should be located at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital. She says she’s never been part of a more professional approach to anything before in her life.
RED AND WHITE CARNATIONS
When Sandy Dennis dies, she wants red and white carnations at her funeral. They remind her of Christmas, a favourite time of the year. She wants a Canadian flag and particular hymns played. She wants her urn to be silver and red.
She’ll have all of this because she’s planned her funeral. “I have no fear of dying,” she says, “and I think that’s because I have a lot of faith in God.”
If she had to pick out the thing that bothers her most about cancer, it's the toll it takes on loved ones, family and caregivers. She thinks of her husband and their four children and of other families and their experiences.
“They’re the ones I feel the worst for because they don’t seem to get the recognition. It’s ‘How’s Sandy? How’s Sandy?’ It’s not, ‘How are you doing, Ken?’” she says. “You’re dealing with the disease, but they’re the ones that all of a sudden see you going downhill. There were times I couldn't shower myself. I couldn’t make my meals. I couldn’t walk. My memory wasn’t good. All of that is a big burden.”
Whenever Dennis shares posts on Facebook, she’s overwhelmed by the messages where people tell her she’s an inspiration.
She says she doesn’t know what she does to inspire people. She’s just living life as best she can.
She recalls having a couple of people ask early on, “What makes you so special?” Their loved ones had had cancer. Why does her life matter more than theirs did?
Her response? Nothing makes her more special. She’s not more important. All she continues to do is to try to help others.
Because even though she’s planned her funeral, she still focuses on living.
She shares some favourite quotes.
“You have been assigned this mountain to climb to show others it can be moved.”
“It’s okay to be scared. Being scared means you’re about to do something really brave.”
“Cancer is only going to be a chapter in your life, not the whole story.”
Dennis doesn’t have a bucket list. She describes herself as a spur-of-the-moment type of person. Someone who in the past would have blurted out to her family, “Hey, who wants to go to Cape Breton today? Let’s pack!”
She attributes this again to her younger years, when plans often didn’t work out. But she never plans to stop thinking about others. And she’s eternally grateful for the support she’s received in return.
“I really feel blessed, I really do,” she says. “What amazes me is the community outreach. It is like I have this whole big family.”