How fighting cancer during pandemic brought this mother and daughter closer

In December 2019, Leslie McDermott was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of Canada, her teenage daughter, Madeline, became her main support, taking care of the cooking, cleaning and even acting as a nurse.

Leslie McDermott started treatment for breast cancer just days before the lockdown

How fighting cancer during the pandemic brought this mother and daughter closer | This Happened to Me

3 years ago
Duration 8:02
In December 2019, Leslie McDermott was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. When the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of Canada, her teenage daughter, Madeline, became her main support, taking care of the cooking, cleaning and even acting as a nurse.

In December 2019, Leslie McDermott was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer. The 52-year-old Ottawa resident had surgery in the weeks following before starting her chemotherapy treatments in March.

She knew it would be a challenging road ahead for her and her teenage daughter, Madeline. But at least she had a strong support system of friends and family who would drop by and help out as she recovered.

Then when the coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the country, that support system was no longer available to her. Being immunocompromised due to chemotherapy meant that Leslie, along with Madeline, had to strictly self isolate.

Over the next few months, Madeline learned to cook, cut hair and give her mom injections while in isolation.

Here is their story, as told to CBC Radio.

Leslie: The chemo started the week before the lockdown. 

My sister and Madeline came with me for my first session, which was nice. So at least they had an idea of the surroundings and what I would be going through.

But that was the last time that I was allowed to have any people come.

Leslie McDermott's first chemotherapy appointment was March 10. The coronavirus was declared a pandemic the next day. (Submitted by Leslie McDermott)

Madeline: When it really hit me, I think the most obvious fear was, "What if she dies?" My mom is all I have, so I don't exactly know where I would go.

But I think later on in the week, I was kind of excited, because my mom works a lot, and with me playing high performance volleyball, I didn't have a lot of time with her.

So I thought it would be a good opportunity to spend more time together, which was really exciting.

Cancer treatment

Leslie: I actually thought that recovering from the surgery was going to be the worst thing. 

Then, I had this amazing friend come over with her husband. They brought some food, and they sat down with me and they gave me the Wonder Woman underwear.

They said, "You've got to understand that the chemo is going to be really hard. This is when you're really going to need us." And she was right.

I didn't realize how hard the chemo would be, so I'm grateful that they gave me that little heads up.

Leslie at a chemotherapy session. She underwent 16 weeks of treatment. (Submitted by Leslie McDermott )

Your body naturally, after surgery, produces fluids, and so they put drains in.

One of them was like a foot long, and it's inside your body ⁠— and I am not good with this sort of thing. 

Madeline was awesome. She had this thing called the Calma Llama, which is a little llama [toy] that you can squeeze.

She would hand it to me and say, "Squeeze the Calma Llama," while the nurse did her thing.

Madeline: While caring for my mom, I think I've always put on a brave face.

For example, the needles. It's horrific to have to inject someone. I don't want to put her in pain, but I know that the needles are not very comfortable.

I tried my best to lay out the big instruction manual on the bed, and I read it every single time, like I was going to learn something new to make it easier.

Prom cancelled

Madeline: My mom and I went prom dress shopping before this all happened, which was one of the most amazing experiences that I've had this year.

We found what I thought was the perfect dress, and I was so excited to wear this dress to my prom.

It was definitely really disappointing to find out that prom got cancelled. That's something that I've been looking forward to.

Leslie: Yeah, that's not fair. But she's not alone. Not alone at all.

A quarantine birthday gift

Leslie: Madeline's 18th birthday happened during the quarantine. She's gone through so much with volleyball and school and everything. So I thought, "What can I do for her?"

She hadn't been able to be with her boyfriend since before we quarantined. 

She said, "Can I get a hug?" So I thought, "How can we do it?"

So I got her a hazmat suit, and she wore the suit and a mask and gloves, and she got to hug her boyfriend. So that was really nice. 

Safe in a hazmat suit, Madeline gives a big hug to her boyfriend Eddie on her 18th birthday. (Submitted by Madeline McDermott)

Madeline: It was a super weird experience, but I would definitely do it again. I think it was a really fun time.

Leslie: She doesn't have to do it again now, because he's in our bubble.

Final chemo treatment

Leslie: I went to my last chemo treatment after 16 weeks. 

It had been really, really hard. I'd been sick. I'd had muscle aches, pains, ended up in emergency, lost my hair, my eyebrows, my eyelashes, everything.

But it was over.

At the hospital, when you complete your last chemo treatment, you get to ring a bell. When I rang the bell, I was emotional, because you're so happy to not have to go back.

Also, after every treatment, starting from when my friend came over and brought me those Wonder Woman underwear, Madeline would do a photo shoot with me. She'd take a picture of me in another piece of the Wonder Woman costume so that by the end of all the treatments, I'd have every piece of that costume on.

So for my final chemo treatment, I went in full Wonder Woman costume.

After each chemo treatment, Leslie dressed up in her Wonder Woman underwear and added a piece of Madeline's old Halloween costume for a fun photo shoot. (Submitted by Leslie McDermott)

I know that I'll have my appointment to find out about the further surgery, and then it's one step at a time, because otherwise it's so overwhelming. 

The future

Madeline: For me, I'm hoping that I can go to residence and actually be on campus in September.

But it's not the end of the world for me if that doesn't happen. I know that my courses are all going to be done remotely for September, so I'm OK with staying home. 

I don't think it would be the best option, but I would still be happy to be home with my mom.

Leslie: That's sweet, but I think that she needs a break. She needs a break from the cancer. I want her wings to open up and fly like she's meant to fly.

Madeline says she's grateful for the time she got to spend with her mom before she goes to university in the fall. (Submitted by Leslie McDermott)

This Happened to Me: The New Normal is a video series from CBC Radio featuring the stories of Canadians whose lives have been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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