September 26, 2020

Cancer sufferer gains a new life and goes snorkelling in the Cayman Islands


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Sheila Scott, shown here with son Christopher (Pic:

For Sheila Scott, it was a defining moment. She stood knee deep in the beautiful blue Caribbean waters off the shore of the Cayman Islands, donned her mask and snorkel, took a breath and dove into the warm water in search of what lay beneath.

A year ago it would not have been possible. Not because of the cancer that lurked undetected in her left breast. Instead it was her claustrophobic fear that kept her from putting that mask on her face and that snorkel in her mouth. Ironically, it was a part of her breast cancer treatment that cured her claustrophobia.

The last year of Mrs. Scott’s life has been a blur. It began in March 2011 with an annual physical, during which her family physician found a lump in her left breast.

Mrs. Scott had been doing everything right: regular mammograms, monthly self-checks. “I thought, ‘Wow. How could this happen?’” she recalls. “‘I am healthy, I do major power walking and yoga, I eat healthy.’” She quickly realized what so many others with her diagnosis have learned. “No matter age, financial situation or general health, cancer does not discriminate.”

Two months before her diagnosis,  Mrs. Scott’s best friend, Gayle Rey, was diagnosed with breast cancer and was being treated at Southlake.

“I had planned to be a support system for Gayle as she went through her treatment journey,” Mrs. Scott says. Instead, she followed in her footsteps and they became support to each other.

“We shared the same family doctor, the same hospital, the same surgeon, even the same hospital room. I told Gayle that, other than my husband, I would share anything with her but that this was crossing the line. We were not supposed to share cancer.”

The two women lost their hair together, picked out wigs together, encouraged each other to get out of bed when one was not feeling well and even goaded each other on. “You don’t want your husband to have to give you a bath do you?” they would say to each other. “Get up and get showered.”

Mrs. Scott also had a wonderful support system in her husband of 32 years, Mick, and sons, Nicholas in Toronto and Christopher in the Cayman Islands.
Because of distance, she was forced to tell Christopher her news via Skype. While he fell to pieces, Mrs. Scott did not shed a tear.

“It is those experiences that tell you are always a mother first,” she says. Two weeks later, Christopher showed up at her doorstep, just to be there for her.
Mrs. Scott’s treatment consisted of a mastectomy, including the removal of 17 lymph nodes, followed by chemotherapy and finally radiation.

“Looking back, it seemed like it was weeks of bad news strung together,” says Mrs. Scott. “I am glad I kept track of my experience on my calendar because now I can look back and get a laugh from some of the colourful language I used.” Looking at that calendar also helps her realize how good she has it now: “When I look at certain dates I can remember what was happening and think about how I was feeling. Things are so much better today.”

When Mrs. Scott first walked into the chemotherapy treatment room her immediate thought was she didn’t want any part of it. “I don’t belong here,” she thought. “Surgery was one thing but this is different. Now I am in it, I am here.”

She received six treatments, each three weeks apart. While the physical effects were awful, the experience of receiving the treatments was anything but.

“I felt like the women who worked in that room were like angels,” Mrs. Scott recounts. “And I met more wonderful angels later during my radiation therapy. It was like these angels were plucked from the sky to become my extended family. They were amazing.”

With chemotherapy behind her, Mrs. Scott was to begin the final phase of her treatment, radiation, five days a week for five weeks, in mid-November. She was anxious to get started as she had plans to spend Christmas with her family in the Cayman Islands.

Things took an unexpected turn, though. “It started with a phone call from my radiologist, Dr. Wells,” she said. “I answered the phone and Dr. Wells identified himself and quickly followed up with the words, ‘Don’t get alarmed.’ Well, the minute you get a phone call from any doctor, you get alarmed.”

Dr. Woodrow Wells, director of the radiation medicine program, was calling about a new device, an active breathing co-ordinator (ABC), recently introduced at Southlake. ABC is a breathing apparatus that helps cancer patients keep their lungs inflated for the brief moments during their radiation treatment when the radiation beam is on. Expanding the chest wall during the treatment keeps the heart out of the radiation beam and protects it from side effects. At Southlake, it is used primarily in patients being treated for cancer of the left breast, as the heart is likely to be in the area exposed to radiation.

Patients breathe through a mouthpiece, much like a snorkel, which is attached to the ABC device. The breathing causes a balloon to inflate in the lungs, that stops the flow of air in and out of the lungs. Since patients are in control of the machine, they can release the balloon at any time should they feel uncomfortable.

“The minute he said the word snorkel, I began hyperventilating on the other end of phone,” Mrs. Scott says. “I am very claustrophobic and while I have done a fair amount of travelling to tropical locales, I have never been able to go snorkelling because the claustrophobia caused me to get very excited and pull the mask off.”

Dr. Wells explained she could refuse to use ABC, but asked her to attend a coaching session on the technology. Realizing the health benefits, Mrs. Scott reluctantly agreed. She did a practice run, going though the whole process of blocking her nose, putting the mouthpiece in, taking a deep breath and then exhaling. An emergency release button gave her some peace-of-mind in getting through the experience.

“My end game had been to go to the Cayman’s for Christmas,” said Mrs. Scott. “If I could wear that snorkel for my treatments, I knew I could wear it anywhere. My new plan was to get to the Cayman’s and go snorkelling while I was there.”

The plan worked. Her last radiation treatment was on Dec. 15 and a week later she and her family left for the islands. There, Mrs. Scott donned the snorkel gear and jumped in the water without giving it a thought.

“I felt as excited as a five-year-old,” she said. “I was seeing all of these beautiful creatures in the water and I just took it all in.”
When she surfaced, her son Nicolas looked at her and said, simply, “Mom, look at what you are doing!”

“This is where my whole life starts again and I am able to share it with my family,” she thought, with tears streaming down her face. She snorkelled every day, and even swam over top of a giant sea turtle. Her only regret? “That first wonderful moment in the water, when I knew I had overcome both my cancer and my claustrophobia, I wished all of those angels back at Southlake could have been in the ocean swimming with me. They all told me I could do it and they were right.”

For more on this story go to:–taking-a-breath-gaining-new-life


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