This memoir starts off by bringing the reader to small town prairie life in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Growing up in the village of Hubbard, the author lives and works at the general store with her parents and siblings. The reader has an enjoyable look into her childhood and family life in a then-bustling railroad village – a glimpse into a bygone era where ‘fast food’ was the barrel of pickled herrings in the front of the general store, and Christmas oranges were mainly prized because their wrappings meant softer paper in the outhouse. After this introduction, the story follows her journey to Saskatoon, career, marriage, two children – and cancer. When Stefaniuk finds a lump in her breast at the age of 42, the reader shares her journey of survival, loss, perseverance, and determination to reach out to others in the midst of her own struggle to not only survive – but thrive.
Along the way, Stefaniuk starts local cancer support groups, brings cancer retreats to the province, and makes friends wherever she goes. She carries the reader on an intimate journey into what living with cancer for 23 years is like – and the attitude which has doubtless helped her come this far. Always positive but gentle and honest, she doesn’t gloss over difficulties – attending a wedding after her mastectomy, she and her husband try everything including fishing weights wrapped in tissue to keep the lighter prosthetic from riding up, and joke about hollowing out a coconut shell. Stefaniuk also shares regrets – reconstructive surgery might have made things easier. She wonders if the decision not to breast-feed her infant daughters when formula was so in vogue might have contributed to the invasive breast cancer.
Beyond breast cancer, Stefaniuk goes through other cancers, but never stops sharing what she’s learned along the way. Despite her shyness of public speaking, she addresses WestJet employees, a class of university medical students, large gatherings, or other cancer patients. As one friend told her, “Cancer was the change that made the real Olga stand up.”
The book is broken into short sections – usually two to five pages – making it easy to read. Stefaniuk’s journey inspires while giving both other cancer patients and their loved ones a clear picture of the experience. She shares not only procedures, but her own emotions and thoughts. At one point she writes, “Although many cancer patients do not want to talk about their experiences, I do. I feel I have to.” This sense of obligation and care is the driving force behind her book, and her personality is on each page – the reader leaves feeling he or she has made a new and intimate friend.
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