Ottawa·Interview

Diane Deans is out to win the fight of her life

In her first sit-down interview since being diagnosed with ovarian cancer six months ago, the veteran Ottawa city councillor sits down with the CBC's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld to talk about her fear, her fight and why she's coming back stronger than ever.

Veteran city councillor talks about her cancer diagnosis, her recovery and what she's learned along the way

‘The acts of kindness have been too numerous to mention’

3 years ago
Duration 1:47
Coun. Diane Deans says friends, family and members of the community have reached out to her since her diagnosis, offering kind words and messages of support.

On a Monday morning in late August, Coun. Diane Deans stood smiling beside Ottawa's new police chief at a news conference at city hall. Peter Sloly, a former deputy chief from Toronto and the first black person to head the Ottawa Police Service, was a big hire for Deans, the chair of the city's police services board.

No one else knew that a few days earlier, Deans had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"I was hell-bent that I was going to get us the right chief before I went off, and before I made this known to the public that I was quite ill and I needed some time," Deans told CBC in her first sit-down interview since her diagnosis.

I gotta tell you, it's hard not to be at city hall, right now.- Coun. Diane Deans

Deans's decision to see the Sloly announcement through without any distractions is typical of the calm resolve with which the veteran councillor approaches both her job and her cancer diagnosis. 

Anyone who's watched her performance at city hall over the last 25 years knows Deans tends to approach a fight head-on. For her, cancer would be no different.

'Shock and disbelief'

At her bright, spacious home in Greely, Deans, 62, looks vibrant in a coral and grey wool sweater and slim black pants. Her straight blond hair is flawless. It's a wig, but you would never know.

Deans doesn't look like a woman who's just been through major surgery and five rounds of chemotherapy.

"I feel like a million bucks," she beams.

That wasn't the case last summer, when Deans said she first started feeling unwell. At first, she thought it was heartburn from eating spicy food.

"Then I started getting bloating in my stomach and I started feeling terrible and I wasn't eating very well," she said. "It's when I realized that I couldn't drink a glass of wine that I thought, man, I think I'm really sick."

Her doctor sent her for a long list of tests, ultrasounds and scopes. Then came the diagnosis.

Deans reacted like any of us would.

"Shock and disbelief, and you know, fear, and all of the gamut of emotions that you go through."

Cancer diagnosis came with ‘shock and disbelief,’ Deans says

3 years ago
Duration 1:28
Coun. Diane Deans describes what it was like to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Going public

After breaking the news to a few close friends and colleagues in private calls and conversations, Deans decided it was time to "rip off the Band-Aid" and went public with her diagnosis on Sept. 23.

A carefully worded news release was drafted, but before anyone hit send, Deans wanted to be in her car, driving away.

 

"Although I'm a public figure, I'm a very private person," she said. "I didn't want to run into anyone else or I was going to cry." 

She headed to a nearby restaurant with her daughter, Megan McGovern, her partner, Ron Richards, and her staff, where they waited for the news to register and the reaction to begin.

"We sat and watched the internet light up, and there were all these amazing messages," Deans recalled.

That's when she becomes emotional — when she thinks back to the avalanche of get well cards and encouraging words from the community. Deans, who through eight terms as an elected official has witnessed just about everything, said she never saw this coming.

 

Now, she believes her very public battle with ovarian cancer might bring the disease out of the shadows, and her recovery might even serve as an inspiration to other women.

"Maybe somebody like me can give others hope. And why wouldn't I? So for me, it's an opportunity."

Coming back stronger

According to Ovarian Cancer Canada, the five-year survival rate is 92 per cent — if the disease is detected early. If it isn't, the survival rate plummets dramatically.

Deans said she's optimistic about her own odds.

"You know what? I never really went dark at all. In fact, I have to say that I have remained positive every day. I believe that I'm going to beat this," Deans said.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and I just think I'm going to come out of this stronger than I was before, and maybe with some really important life lessons."

In addition to focusing on her own treatment, Deans has also been caring for her daughter, who fell ill in late November with ulcerative colitis and spent two and half months in hospital. McGovern is now home and recovering. 

Champing at the bit

Of course, Deans has also been following the action at city hall through one of the most tumultuous council terms in recent memory.

"I gotta tell you, it's hard not to be at city hall, right now," she said.

Before taking leave for treatment and recovery, Deans, a former transit commission chair, hammered city staff over SNC-Lavalin's $1.6-billion contract to expand the Trillium Line despite the firm failing to meet certain technical requirements. She's also been following the problems plaguing the city's new LRT line with great interest, and some anger.

She said her oncologist encourages her to steer clear of the LRT, if only for her own health.

"He encourages me not to take LRT to appointments. He's worried I'll never show up," she jokes.

Deans has a lot to say about what's been going on in her absence, and she's eager to return to city hall. But she's also vowing to heed the advice of her doctors and not rush things.

"I have such a passion for this city and the people that live in this city, and I've been ... just so fortunate for 25 years to be part of the life of this city, and I'm looking forward to getting back to work."


On Thursday morning, Deans will host her annual International Women's Day breakfast with the CBC's Lucy van Oldenbarneveld. The event begins at 8:30 a.m. at Infinity Convention Centre, 2901 Gibford Dr.

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