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'You can choose your attitude': Breast cancer becomes a unique mother-daughter bond

When she was 46, Gayle Gorrill was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just over a decade later, her daughter received the same diagnosis
Emily Boulter, left, and mother Gayle Gorrill on the Run For the Cure route on Ring Road at the University of Victoria on Friday. The Canadian Cancer Society fundraiser is set for Sunday at 3800 Finnerty Rd. ­Opening ceremonies are at 9:30 a.m. The 5 km run/walk and 1 km run/walk both begin at 10 a.m. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

There are many successes a parent might want to pass on to a child, but cancer survivor is a complicated one.

In 2006, when her kids were 14 and 11, Gayle Gorrill was diagnosed with breast cancer. Just over a decade later, her then-25-year-old daughter was diagnosed with the same disease.

“You know how you want to have that mother-daughter bond?” said Gorrill in an interview. “This is not the way I’d choose to have it, but boy is it strong.”

On Sunday, Gorrill, who was the the key speaker for the CIBC Run For The Cure in 2012, 2018 and 2022, will proudly pass on the title of Participant of Hope speaker to her 31-year-old daughter, Emily Boulter.

“We want to raise awareness about breast cancer,” said Gorrill, 63. “We also really want women, whether they are young or old or survivors, to be diligent in following up on any health concerns, and we want to talk about the importance of the run in building community.”

It’s estimated that one in eight Canadian women will develop breast cancer in their lifetime and one in 34 will die from it.

Gorrill, who had been working at the University of Calgary, was just 46 and in the middle of moving to a new job as an administrator at the University of Victoria when she noticed a lump in her breast.

It was cancer. It was also moving day.

“I remember sitting in the basement of our house, surrounded by boxes … and just crying,” said Gorrill. “And you know, what do you do? You’ve just got to keep going.”

Once in Victoria, Gorrill had a single mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. “Cut, poison, burn followed by years of medication,” she said.

She adopted the mantra that she would be fine. She had the support of a great husband, two amazing children, and a flexible employer, she said.

That same year, 2006, Boulter joined her mom in the Run For the Cure in Victoria.

Gorrill had long participated in the run to show support and fundraise for other women. Taking part as a survivor held deeper meaning. She remembers the crowds and the celebration, which felt like a collective hug.

Eleven years passed. Gorrill ran some half marathons. Her teen daughter had become a young woman living on her own.

Gorrill’s cancer was supposed to have been a random occurrence — one and done — so neither foresaw what was coming next.

In 2017, Boulter discovered a nagging lump. “I googled it and I thought it was probably a cyst,” she said.

Boulter was so convinced, buoyed by a mix of naivete and a youthful sense of immortality, that she waited months before visiting a walk-in clinic. A mammogram was ordered.

“This is where the mother-daughter connection comes in again,” said Gorrill, “because she told me she was going to get this mammogram and that they were also going to do an ultrasound. I was concerned.

“I got so worried I got a pain in my stomach so bad that my husband had to take me to the hospital,” said Gorrill. “They thought I had appendicitis.”

In May of 2017, her daughter was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer, Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2-positive, called HER2+ breast cancer. It was Stage 3.

Working at a call centre and with no health insurance, Boulter had to pay for medications out of pocket. She and her boyfriend — whom she married this summer — moved in with her parents.

One year into dating, the young couple found themselves forced to discuss life together, fertility, possible embryo freezing, and death.

Gorrill was so consumed with her daughter’s cancer and treatments, she didn’t immediately deal with news that a diagnostic scan had shown Gorrill’s breast cancer had returned, as two small tumours, one in each lung.

Gorrill’s first thought was: “How am I ever going to be able to tell Emily this? That was right at the time that Emily was going through some of the heaviest, ugliest treatments … and her whole approach was ‘my mom had it and she was fine’ and now I wasn’t fine.”

The inclination at this point might be to cry, but in an interview with the Times Colonist, the pair laughed, and laughed. The tragedy had grown to absurd proportions. They decided to find the humour in their shared experience and to react with optimism.

The two shared the same oncologist, spoke the same cancer language, experienced the same side effects, and had major surgeries one day apart — in 2017, Boulter had a single-breast mastectomy while Gorrill had the two small tumours removed from one lung.

“They were trying to get me released from the hospital early so I could see her as she was coming out of her surgery, because we were in different hospitals,” said Gorrill. “We sat and watched Netflix together for months.”

Gorrill said you can’t pretend cancer is easy, because it’s not, “but I still think you can choose your attitude” and surround yourself with the people and events who make you feel better and say no to those who don’t. To let the cancer “consume you” is to let it win, and you can’t do that, she said.

“On one hand, you have to pay attention and not let people tell you it’s nothing when it’s something — you have to be your own health advocate — and at the same time you can’t be paranoid,” said Gorrill.

“It’s about moving forward with whatever you can.”

Boulter stayed active, riding her bike to radiation appointments, and joining a young-adult cancer group.

“They understood what it was like to be in your 20s with cancer and going to a friend’s birthday party with no hair or having to leave your job, all of those things that impact you differently when you’re younger,” she said.

Mother and her daughter both recovered, but that survival depends on therapies developed through research — which is why cancer fundraisers such as Run For The Cure are so important, they say.

Boulter had a “complete response to chemotherapy” and has been cancer-free for five years now.

As for Gorrill, she had another recurrence in 2020.

This time, the breast-cancer tumour in her lung was so large, her lung had to be removed. The tumour was both HER2 positive and estrogen positive, two different types of breast cancer.

For the foreseeable future, Gorrill is on two different drugs.

“I can’t put breast cancer behind me, but I can — and I do — live my best life and hope that I die with breast cancer and not from it.”

>>>The Canadian Cancer Society’s CIBC Run For the Cure is set for Sunday at the University of Victoria, 3800 Finnerty Road.

The event is open to people of all abilities, adults and children, to run or walk.

Registration is at 8:30 a.m. followed by opening ceremonies at 9:30 a.m.

Both the 5-kilometre run/walk and 1 km run/walk begin at 10 a.m.

The money raised in events across Canada goes toward breast-cancer treatments, research, community support through peer programs and items such as wigs and prosthesis.

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