A small pink pumpkin sits at the edge of the small kitchen table in Eleanor Ripley’s apartment in Collingwood, Nova Scotia, as she explains the significance of the date we are meeting: it’s the anniversary of her son’s death, and it’s Breast Reconstruction Awareness Day (BRA Day).
As she puts a mug of green tea in front of me, Eleanor says, “I’ve done some meditating on this and the way I’d like to start this interview with a minute of silent reflection, while we sip our tea, to think of all the people who have been touched by cancer, lost loved ones, struggling with being a caregiver, and remembering those who have lost the fight.”
We sit in silence for three minutes; outside, birds sing in the mid-October sunshine.
“I don’t want my identity to be about breast cancer or about being a survivor of suicide,” Eleanor, who retired from teaching in 2004, finally speaks. “I would like it to be about a human being who’s had some zingers thrown at her.”
That is an understatement. The zingers that happened to her or to those she loves include divorce, suicide, cancer, and dementia. I’ve known Eleanor for a decade but not well enough to know all that. If asked to describe her, the words I would use are: upbeat, vibrant, spunky, energetic, talkative.
“I’ve had a lot of support and I’ve learned through those horrible times that people do reach out and people do care,” she says. “I’ve been blessed with some very fine friends. And family. And spiritually, I do believe in a higher power. There have been some rocky roads; I’m not going to tell you there weren’t dark times but I’ve had more uplifting times.”
Eleanor picks up a journal lying on the table next to the pink pumpkin.
“When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, almost a year to the day of losing my son, my friend Judy gave me this journal,” she says. “That was in 1993. There she is,” Eleanor points to a photo of her friend stuck to the inside cover. “I lost her to ovarian cancer.”
She touches a piece of loose paper tucked inside the journal.
“Here is another friend, strong, strong woman, fellow teacher. We’re the same age. She’s gone. It was quick. One of those ‘nothing we can do’. These two women are gone and they didn’t die of breast cancer, and here they were supporting me. It just shows you the unpredictableness of life.”
Eleanor, who is 66 but doesn’t look it, admits she has no answer to why she is here and her friends are not but then she sits up a little straighter.
“I’m still here because of research,” she realizes. “When you get cancer in your breast, it won’t kill you. It’s the metastases that will get you. No one’s ever died of cancer that’s stayed in the breast.”
The reason Eleanor moved from Pugwash to Collingwood is to be closer to her younger sister, who is battling cancer.
“Boy, there’s another thing,” she says. “It’s one thing for the person who has cancer but it’s another thing for the loved ones who support them through the journey. I learned this with my sister. You hurt in another way. So this whole thing about diagnoses – it’s not just the patient, it’s all the loved ones, too. There isn’t anybody up and down this road who hasn’t been touched by it.”
The pink pumpkin is the reason Eleanor decided to go through with our interview. She saw a pink-painted pumpkin at the Collingwood post office and learned that two young local men who want to be farmers were donating proceeds of their pumpkin sales to the Canadian Breast Cancer Society.
“When I saw two young men, about the age of Dan when he died, going out and doing this, I thought, ‘We’re going to have a pink pumpkin today.’ People do care, they want to fight.”
It’s a coincidence that the day of our interview is also Breast Reconstruction Awareness (BRA) Day, an idea that is important to Eleanor. Although her cancer was first detected in 1993, she didn’t have a mastectomy, and chemotherapy, until it came back in 1997.
“Losing a breast can devastate you as a woman,” she explains. “Just to look at the scar afterwards... The divorce, losing my son then losing my breast. It was just too much. Breast reconstruction isn’t for everybody. Of all my surgeries, it was the most painful,” she admits. “A lot of people don’t want to go through more surgery but it was my way of fighting back. I wouldn’t do it at this point in my life but I had it done in 2001.”
Eleanor fought cancer again in 2009. The recurrences, the battle her sister is undergoing, the loss of so many friends keeps her humble.
“I just feel lucky,” she says. “I don’t want to be ‘Look at me, I’m alive’ and then go tomorrow and find a lump. I have a very healthy respect for cancer, and not much wonder. So I don’t want to appear cocky.”
Although she admits that she’s not big on the whole pink ribbon thing, Eleanor loves being a member of a dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors.
“It wasn’t until my latest recurrence that I thought, ‘Darn it, I want to do that’. That’s been a real fun thing,” she says. “You get out in that boat and the drums are beating and you’re all paddling. When we’re in the boat, we don’t talk about cancer.”
She shows me a framed card with a quote on the front: ‘Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul/And sings a tune without the words/And never stops at all.’ The card came from a friend who later died of cancer.
“I found the card one day and looked at it,” Eleanor says. “I came so close, in my anger, to crumpling it up but something stopped me. I read it again and realized not everyone survives this disease. I thought, ‘There’s a message here, something deeper’. So Emily Dickinson’s quote now hangs on my wall. That’s where I’m at with this.”
Ultimately, what Eleanor wants to talk about, why she went ahead with this interview, is hope. Celebrating friendship and life is what is most important to Eleanor, not just today but every day.