‘Life carries on, even on a bad day’

Sandra Caya, mother of two, is being treated for breast cancer, and as Samantha Ball writes, she is determined to maintain a sense of normalcy for her family

caya-cancer-storySandra Caya was 11 years old when her mother died of breast cancer at the age of 45.

Now, the Perth resident is facing breast cancer at the same age, while trying, with her husband Mario, to maintain a sense of normalcy for their two children, André and Nathalie.

Caya had always done regular breast self-exams and started her annual mammograms at 35.

In April 2012, she had an unexplained sore left shoulder for a few weeks, and then noticed her left nipple had retracted. This led Sandra to find a lump underneath her breast.

She immediately booked a mammogram, but couldn’t get in for three weeks. She had a nagging feeling, however, and called back to be put on a cancellation list.

She was called in the next day.

After her tests, Caya wasn’t able to see a surgeon for diagnosis until June 13, which she describes as “a tortuous waiting period.” Her gut instinct was confirmed: she had Stage 3 breast cancer.

The doctor recommended she take a year off for treatment.

After her diagnosis, her thoughts turned to her two young children and how she would tell them.

Caya wishes she would have known sooner about the Psychosocial Oncology Program at the Ottawa Hospital, which offers guidance on talking to children about cancer.

But at the time, Caya was upset and nervous about it.

She told André, 10, and Nathalie, 8, one-on-one, hoping to make it sound less ominous and allow each child to ask their own questions.

Knowing their family history, the news was hard for the children to hear, but Caya’s oncologist

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assured her that kids adapt well.

In the summer of 2012, Caya had her first two surgeries and decided to take a leave from her position as manager and physiotherapy assistant at Perth Physiotherapy.

As a French and Gym teacher for senior kindergarten to Grade 5 classes, Mario was due to return to Queen Elizabeth Public School, where their children attend, in September. However, with Caya’s cancer and his own need for a hip replacement, he was convinced by his principal and colleagues to take time off. “It is probably the best thing I ever did,” he says now.

And Caya says she is grateful they are at home together, that it allows them to function efficiently as a family, with minimal support.

Caya’s father was especially happy with Mario’s choice, because he regretted not taking time off when her mother was ill.

“Time cannot ever be recovered,” he says. Mario says it has also allowed them to keep their children’s lives and daily routines as normal as possible.

Caya underwent six weeks of chemotherapy treatments from November 2012 to February 2013. A typical day for the couple during a chemotherapy week would include Mario preparing breakfast for André and Nathalie, packing their lunches, and dropping off the children at school.

Mario would then drive his wife to the Queensway- Carleton Hospital. He drove Caya to every appointment in Ottawa, and she describes this as “wonderful bonding” for them.

At the hospital, Caya would check in and fill out a questionnaire about how she was feeling, then undergo blood tests and wait for the results, followed by a meeting with the oncologist, and then a 2 1/2 hour treatment. Organization was critical, as arrangements had to be made for the children to be picked up at school by 3:10 p.m.

When not at the hospital or appointments, Caya rests while the kids are at school, so they can have family time in the evening. Both children have a special visit with their mother at bedtime.

Though Caya says she was fortunate to have tolerated chemotherapy “quite well,” in the days after, she required her own bathroom to avoid exposing her family to toxic drugs and never shared her utensils, food or drinks.

Caya often continued to take André and Nathalie to their after-school activities, though this was complicated by her need to avoid germs.

Over the past year, the family caught a few illnesses, and Caya ended up in the hospital. This coincided with her children’s Christmas concert.

“That was the toughest day of the whole thing,” says Caya. “I missed the concert, and they were crying at home, and Mario was worried about me.”

And with good reason.

“The last three treatments were much harder physically on Sandra than the first three,” says Mario, 53.

“She was discouraged after treatment 4 and wanted to quit because of the amount of pain.”

But Caya recovered, and Mario decided a vacation would give the family a much-needed morale boost. In March, the family travelled to Cuba for a relaxing family adventure before Caya began a series of radiation treatments throughout April and May.

The Cayas were told that the radiation shouldn’t be as hard on Caya as the chemotherapy.

But the possible side effects of radiation were explained to them: that there was a chance there would be a small amount of damage to the left lung and heart because of the location of her cancer.

Mario says it’s also possible that the radiation could cause more cancer in 30 to 40 years, but they decided the benefits are much greater than the risks.

“The radiation will help prevent her cancer from reappearing over the next 25 years,” he says. “If the radiation causes a new cancer to appear…we will deal with it then, but now, the next 25 years are the priority.”

The couple’s focus has always been their children’s wellbeing and trying to stay positive.

Caya’s three operations, in particular the last one (a double mastectomy) were difficult for the children to handle. And the change in Caya’s appearance has been especially hard on her daughter.

Nathalie can’t look at her mother without her wig or scarf.

Though Caya occasionally still finds herself complaining about feeling ugly after losing her hair, eyelashes and eyebrows, she will still put on makeup and a nice scarf and go out, to show her children that “life carries on, even on a bad day.”

The Cayas have been humbled by the support they’ve received from family, friends and strangers. They have received meals, flowers, visits and child care. Queen Elizabeth Public School dedicated their Family Fun Run to them.

Caya’s co-workers also fundraised for the family and entered the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure. Caya participated in both events.

Though it has been tough for the family to accept the many offers of help, “my friends taught me to accept what people want to do for us,” says Mario.

But they have no trouble giving back. Mario invented a golf tee designed for people of all ages and abilities, and ideal for those with health issues. A portion of all sales go to charity, including breast cancer research.

Among other retailers, Kelly’s Mastectomy Boutique in Ottawa sells them because they are easy for women recovering from breast cancer operations to use.

And though they have faced many challenges so far, and still have a long road ahead, the Cayas say the time they have spent together over the past year has been “the most memorable ever.”