Moving memories, changing lives

On September 14, 2004, Brenda McIntyre’s life changed.

The day before her mother’s 60th birthday, Brenda McIntyre sat holding her hand in a surgeon’s office. The doctor explained to her that he would have to remove her mother’s breast. As the reality settled in, she couldn’t figure out the words to comfort her mom. Her mom’s reaction ended up shocking her the most.

“We came out of the office and she joked about being lop-sided and about how she’d always wanted a breast reduction and maybe this wasn’t so bad after all,” McIntyre recalls. “I just thought what an amazing person.”

McIntyre’s mom, Mary McIntyre, had breast cancer.

The cancer spread from her breasts to her bones and finally to the brain. She died this past August. Her mother’s positive outlook and determination inspired McIntyre, 33. Supporting her mother through the illness made her realize the importance of living.

“You realize what’s important in life,” she explained. “You don’t come out of an oncology ward and come out the same person. You see people in there that are at the absolute worst.”

Week after week she took her mom to the oncology ward and watched as the patients’ spirits were lifted by an ongoing joke. Each week they would agree that the following week they would have a party, a big potluck. Even though they knew the potluck would never happen, McIntyre said it gave them some hope that they’d all be back.

Breast cancer has proven to be a hard disease to tackle alone. Brenda’s family is small, but in friends, co-workers and even strangers, she found the support she needed. Her co-workers had a “pink day” and a long-time friend, Jennifer Oakley-James, made treats and meals, wrote cards and lent a listening ear. Oakley-James said that she sees the McIntyre family as fighters.

“Brenda’s family is very strong,” she said. “When they have to deal with something like cancer, they deal with it. No ‘Why me, why me’. That attitude helped me [to] be supportive.”

When her mom got sick, McIntyre started gathering a larger team for the CIBC Run for the Cure, a run she had been participating in for the past few years. She also began volunteering for the Canadian Breast Cancer Federation, making little pink ribbons, a task that her mom would help her with while she was still alive.

“People asked why I still volunteered while my mom was in the hospital,” she said. “I needed to do it. It really is therapy for me. I am doing something to help the cause and I’m with people who know what it’s like.”

While volunteering at a Maple Leafs hockey game, asking for donations in exchange for pink ribbons, McIntyre discovered that she could bond and find comfort in a complete stranger. Two young guys rushed past her to find their seats. One paused, turned around and asked what she was collecting. When she said money for breast cancer, he reached into his pocket. He had lost his mother to the disease.

“I had never met this person and instantly we knew. I didn’t have to say anything else and he said ‘Here’s $50′,” McIntyre recalled.

The annual CIBC Run for the Cure also brings strangers together who have experienced the impact of breast cancer or simply want to help the cause. The run began 15 years ago in Toronto. Participants can choose to walk or run either a five- or one-kilometre route.

Kelly MacIntosh, the co-director of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation CIBC Run for the Cure, said that a long-term bonding element of day remains the huge canvas banner called “The Wall of Hope.”

“At the beginning of the day there are a few words, courage, hope strength, love pink written in bold letters,” she explained. “By the end of the day you can’t find a space to mark. It’s a way of everybody sharing their feelings publicly about why they are participating in the run.”

This year 30,000 Torontonians participated in the run and raised $4.4 million. McIntyre participated with her team; 26 people walked with her and collectively they raised over $4,000. The youngest member of her team was two. But this year was bittersweet, she said, because her mom was gone.

“The last two years I’ve been walking for her and now it is walking in memory of her and just supporting the cause,” she said. “I can’t help her anymore but we can certainly do everything we can to prevent someone else from getting the disease, or help in the research.”

McIntyre said that she will continue walking and volunteering. As just one person, she makes a difference.