North

'I'm a living miracle': Yellowknife woman with terminal cancer beating the odds

Maureen Tonge had a terminal brain tumour. Now, she could beat the odds — and she’s spreading a message of gratitude for the holidays.

Maureen Tonge is spreading a message of gratitude this holiday season

Maureen Tonge was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year. Now, it looks like she could beat the odds. (Submitted by Maureen Tonge)

Maureen Tonge wasn't supposed to see the end of 2019.

Diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour in January, doctors guessed she could have as little as only four months to live.

But throughout the year, the Yellowknife art teacher has seen her tumour shrink to one-tenth the size — and it seems as though she'll beat the odds, she said.

Now, she's taking the holidays to spread a message of gratitude.

"May you find the blessings in the mundane, in the everyday," she told listeners of CBC's Trail's End, "because there is always blessings to be found."

Recovery 'a team effort'

Tonge said she first noticed something was wrong late last year, when she was "suffering quite drastically from anxiety and depression."

"I had lost all forms of balance," said Tonge, who also works as a yoga teacher.

I just fairly recently have embraced the fact that I'm a living miracle.- Maureen Tonge

Tonge said she initially thought the problem was seasonal affective disorder. But after she experienced a grand mal seizure in January, she went to the Yellowknife Primary Care Centre.

"The doctor that I saw said, 'Let's rule out the worst-case scenario and get you a … CT scan,'" she said. "But being what the system is up here, I didn't hear for two weeks, and then my CT scan wasn't booked for another four weeks."

When she was finally diagnosed with brain cancer, Tonge said she was under the impression she had at least a year to live.

Tonge and her twin sister, Kirsten Tonge, after Maureen recently learned her tumour is considered medically stable. (Submitted by Maureen Tonge)

But the reality was far worse. Her neurosurgeon informed her husband and twin sister, Kirsten Tonge, that she could have as little as four months.

It was Kirsten who helped her recognize that "I didn't really get it right," about the timeline, she said.

Tonge said during this period, she was in "a full-on state of denial."

"[I] had indicated to everyone that would listen that I was neither my diagnosis nor my prognosis … and that I would prove them differently," said Tonge.

I was neither my diagnosis nor my prognosis.- Maureen Tonge

In March, she began a rigorous, six-week course of chemotherapy.

During her treatment, Tonge, a believer in alternative medicine, recruited the supportive "prayers and positive energy" of "thousands of people from all corners of the globe." She also engaged the services of B.C. based shaman, worked with naturopathic doctors, and used essential oils.

Before her treatment, Tonge's tumour measured approximately 54 cubic centimetres. A followup MRI in late July showed a "dramatic" reduction — to just over seven cubic centimetres.

And on Dec. 11, her latest scan showed it had shrunk even further.

She called her recovery "a team effort."

Focusing on healing

Tonge isn't out of the woods yet — while her tumour is reduced in size, she's still getting treatments in Yellowknife and returning to Edmonton for exams and checkups.

"I'm incredibly fortunate to be on long-term disability at this point, and so I am able to focus my days on healing," she said. "I spend typically hours in a day doing different meditations."

Tonge also spends her time practicing yoga, exercising with her dog, learning how to paint, and working on a book about her journey.

She said the past year has been a spiritual journey as much as it has been a physical one.

"I just fairly recently have embraced the fact that I'm a living miracle," she said.

Her advice to others for the holidays is to focus on the present moment — and find your blessings in the everyday.

"Honestly, there is only now."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Tonge received treatments in Edmonton. In fact, she received treatments in Yellowknife, and travelled to Edmonton for exams and checkups.
    Dec 30, 2019 10:50 AM CT

Written by John Last, based on an interview by Lawrence Nayally, produced by Joanne Stassen

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.