Metro Morning

Tired, busy, stressed: Counting blessings through years of stress

For one Toronto couple, everyday struggle turned into extreme stress. It started the year they embarked on a home renovation in the middle of a pregnancy. But that was nothing compared to the strain of finding out a few months after the baby arrived that she had cancer.

Couple recovers from intense stress from their baby's illness with new perspective

Mat Trudel, Justine Saccomanno and their daughter Margot enjoy this past Santa Claus Parade. (Justine Saccomanno)

Many Torontonians feel tired, busy and stressed just making it through a normal day.

That comes from work, family life, and the everyday challenges of living in a big, busy city.

But for one Toronto couple, that everyday struggle turned into something even more stressful.

It started the year they embarked on a home renovation in the middle of a pregnancy. But that was nothing compared to the strain of finding out a few months after the baby arrived that the little girl had cancer.

And the blows kept coming.

While they still carry the scars of the most stressful years of their life, they've also learned a life lesson that keeps ordinary stress in perspective.

It all began when Justine Saccomanno noticed water leaking down the bedroom wall.

The first time was five years ago. They'd paid to get it fixed, but the leak was back. Saccomanno was five months pregnant at the time. She and her husband, Mat Trudel, had gone for a trip during the repairs, hoping the ceiling would be fixed when they got back. But it wasn't.

"There was no ceiling in our bedroom," said Trudel. 

Saccomanno remembered crying at the prospect of not sleeping in their own bed again. 

But that was nothing compared to what was to come. Less than a year later, their baby wasn't sitting up yet. Sensing something was wrong, they took Margot, their six-month-old daughter, to a doctor. That's when the cancer diagnosis came.

Margot had a rare tumour that started in her tailbone.

At the time, Trudel was working for a healthcare start-up and the company had relocated to San Francisco. The family had just got there, too.

Everything changed.

"We undid the whole move," said Trudel. "I went back for three weeks when things were stable here, to pack up the apartment and I quit my job. We'd spent three months getting down there, there for two months, and then came right back."

They had already rented out their Toronto home and stored their stuff in a friend's basement for the San Francisco move.

"We were homeless," recalled Saccomanno. "We'd rented our house out here, didn't have a place to come back to until the lease ran out."

When they weren't at the Hospital for Sick Children, they were staying with friends or in Waterloo, with Saccomanno's parents.

The darkest moment came the day surgeons operated on the tumour. The couple waited to hear a prognosis.

"I remember it was a long day, and I knit a dishcloth, I don't know why," she said.

They were in the waiting room so long, the lights were dimmed for the night while they were still in the room.

"We hadn't heard a thing for 12 hours and for them to come and turn the lights off, it was very demoralizing, it was a pretty dark moment," said Trudel.

Even now, the strain of that moment makes it hard to talk about. But an hour later, word came that the surgery was successful.

"We went to eat ramen, and we were crying the whole time, the wait staff must have felt like we were crazy," said Trudel.

"It was surreal: you're eating ramen and crying," said Saccomanno.

The pressure didn't let up for the next three years. 

There was chemotherapy, and in the middle of that, more bad news. The friend's house, where the couple had stored most of their belongings, caught fire. Almost everything was gone.

"I remember laughing," said Trudel. "Honestly, what else could go wrong?"

All their expenses went on a line of credit as Trudel was freelancing for work.

"That's when my anxiety was the highest. It was generalized anxiety disorder, after the hospital," said Saccomanno.

The couple talked about the waiting to see if their daughter would survive, thinking every ailment or sign of sickness could mean her death.

Instead of tearing them apart, Saccomanno said the stress brought the couple closer. Researchers say the human body is designed to withstand occasional extreme stress. 

But it does leave scars. For Mat and Justine, one of them was deciding not to have another baby.

Saccomanno still has anxiety attacks, often triggered by small losses like misplacing her keys.

Trudel now works from home, and is able to take time off to pick up Margot from daycare or stay with her if she's sick. He also can take time off to fix things around the house, like leaky ceilings.

The two said while the five years of unrelenting stress has left its mark, it also has given them perspective on their lives.

Every few weeks, Saccomanno said, one of them turns to the other and says, "Aren't we lucky?"