Montreal·PERSONAL ESSAY

What does it mean to be strong?

It’s amazing how many people tell you to be strong when you are faced with a crisis. But what do they mean, exactly?

From mindfulness to hemp seed oil, advice from the wellness trenches

Sue and her Mum Caroline. This. Lipstick. Is. Everything. (Sue Smith/CBC)

Sue Smith is the host of CBC Montreal's Homerun on CBC Radio One. In December, her mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that has spread to her brain and elsewhere in her body.

This is the third in a short series of personal essays about her experience.


Be strong.

It's amazing how many people tell you that when you are faced with a crisis. They crinkle their eyes and look at you meaningfully before they leave the hospital room. Be strong.

They send love and stories in an email and end with it. Be strong. They take Mum's hands and tell her, "Be strong."

I am not sure what it means. Stay strong physically, so that I can keep spending long days at the hospital? So that I can manhandle the walker into the car? Bend down countless times a day to help Mum with her shoes? Support her as she attempts to walk around the block?

Or does it mean I need to stay strong mentally? Be prepared for whatever is coming, like the big silver maples in my backyard that bend with the wind but never fall down.

Does "be strong" mean don't cry? Don't curl up in a ball moaning, "I can't do this. I can't. I can't."

My mother, Caroline, takes it very literally. Ever since she found out that the breast cancer that she had fought 15 years ago was back, this time all over her body, she tells me every day that she needs to be strong. And she works at it. Squats. Walks. Stretches on the floor. Milk, kale, protein, even hemp seed oil — disgusting! She downs a tablespoon every morning; she says it keeps her bones strong.

Be strong, so that you can keep fighting whatever is coming.

Caroline does squats to stay strong. (Sue Smith/CBC)

Mental strength is a big part of being strong. Everyone knows you have to have a "positive attitude." That you have to wake up every morning and say, "I'm going to beat you, cancer!"

Forget chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, the cocktails of drugs. You are going to beat this because you are strong. But what if you are not strong? What if you are afraid, tired and sore and just want to sleep? Just want the pain to go away?

Mum knows how to be strong. When she was having radiation on her brain she was terrified that she would move. As the technicians wheeled her into the room she would tell them, "Please talk to me, tell me how much time is left."

When she came out, she was always smiling. She'd give me the thumbs up.

"They were wonderful," she would tell me. "They talked to me the whole time". Was it OK Mum, did you move? "Oh no Susie, I was fine. I just did my yoga breathing."

Caroline was afraid she would move during radiation. She asked the technicians to talk her through it, then practised yoga breathing. (Sue Smith/CBC)

Alex Trebek, the host of Jeopardy!, announced recently that he has pancreatic cancer. He posted a video and said, "The prognosis for this is not very encouraging, but I'm going to fight this.… I plan to beat the low survival rate statistics for this disease."

But Alex, what if you are strong and you DON'T beat it? And what about all the people who die from this God awful disease — does that mean they were weak?

Another piece of advice people like to give is to "take care of yourself." On the West Island, there is a brand new, beautiful wellness centre for people going through cancer treatment. It offers massages, courses like yoga, meditation, art therapy — everything you can imagine. Lots of her friends encouraged Mum to go.

"Take care of yourself," they said. So we went.

The nicest people in the world gave us a tour, showed us the tea room, the library, the massage tables, the communal kitchen. It is a magnificent facility. As we were leaving, a yoga class was getting out. Many of the women had bald heads or scarves. They hugged Mum warmly and said, "You'll love it here."

When we left, Mum had to hold on to the railing she was sobbing so hard. "I can't come here," she told me. "I don't want to be around cancer people all the time. I want to forget."

I hugged her. Told her she was not an awful person. That taking care of yourself might mean something different for her. So we went to the Pointe-Claire Plaza and we bought some cheap lipstick. Mum was very insistent on getting a bright, bubblegum pink. The girl who helped us found just the right shade and Mum slathered it on and looked at herself in the mirror.

"That's the one!" she told us happily. "In the 70s we used to put flat white on our lips and then apply the pink over it. LOOOOVE this!"

The lipstick helps me be strong. Every time I see it on her, I smile. And so does she.

I hate the fact that Mum is tired all the time. That her speech is slurred and she can't remember things very well. That she gets out of breath after only a few steps. That she needs the walker again. That the best is probably behind us. But the lipstick reminds me how much life there is left to enjoy.

Like going for lunch after the radiation appointment to Mandy's in Westmount and getting a corner table. "I like this place!" Mum said. "It's got a great VIBE."

Caroline likes it at Mandy’s. ‘It’s got a great vibe.’ (Sue Smith/CBC)

Like cajoling Mum off the couch and out for a walk and being rewarded by the neighbourhood cardinal showing off his colours and singing his heart out for us.

Like having hot dogs and coke at Costco for dinner and giggling hysterically over Mum's refusal to share her fries. "Sooooooo delicious," she rolls her eyes, "I have been looking forward to this ALL DAY. Go get me more ketchup!"

Like her friends throwing her a luncheon. With balloons. And presents. Just because they love her.

Like watching my daughter model her prom dress in the kitchen. "You are so gorgeous," says Mum, clapping her hands. "It was made for you."

And just like that you can do it. You can be strong. Together.

About the Author

Sue Smith is the host of CBC Radio One's Homerun in Montreal.

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