Harrigan opens up on her cancer fight

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West Kent Coun. Melissa Harrigan is seen here ready to return to Chatham-Kent council chambers. After an extended battle with breast cancer, Harrigan spoke with The Voice about her cancer journey.

By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

West Kent Coun. Melissa Harrigan is set to return to her seat on council Monday night after an extended absence battling breast cancer. The Chatham Voice caught up with her recently to talk about her cancer journey.

Q. What is the most challenging thing you have faced in your cancer treatment journey?

A. Physically, the chemotherapy was the most challenging part of my cancer treatment. The fatigue, bone pain, and other side effects were some of the most challenging health-related symptoms and side effects I have ever experienced.

Emotionally, coming to terms with having cancer, and being a cancer patient, has been a challenge. In the early days, wondering how advanced my cancer had progressed was very difficult. Then later, learning how to tone down everything and focus on myself was a challenge. As someone who has an identity of being a “doer,” taking time to rest took some getting used to!

Q. Looking back, what is the greatest lesson that you’ve learned in the past year?

A. Cancer provides lots of tokens of wisdom, and certainly for me these came in all forms. Overall, I learned to really appreciate the time I have with people I love, and take pause to admire the small moments shared with my family and in nature. Cancer has made me realize how precious our lives are, and how none of us know when our time will end here.

Q. Was your absence from council difficult and was it hard not being able to participate in council matters, especially with all the challenges facing Wheatley since the explosion?

A. It was incredibly difficult to truly pause my role as a councillor while facing treatment, but I did feel supported by the community and my fellow councillors in taking leave. Certainly there are some issues that council debated I wish I would have been present for (natural heritage and the tree-cutting by law is an obvious one).

That said, I am committed to being forward focused in my return.

Regarding Wheatley, I have been so lucky to have a “ward partner” in councillor (Lauren) Anderson, who does an excellent job advocating for Wheatley and our ward. I am also pleased to learn of the progress that has been made recently in the community, and hope we continue to see movement in the community recovery.

 Q. What kind of support did you receive from council and the community?

A. My oncologist recently told me “I sailed through treatment,” noting that overall, I did really well in how I responded and am handling the treatment program I am on. My response was, “I have a whole community to thank for it,” and I truly mean that.

Community members, family, friends, and colleagues truly wrapped their arms around our family over the last 10 months. Meals were made, our house was cleaned, rides were given, and notes of encouragement were offered regularly. My community celebrated every milestone and cheered me on every step of the way.

I am also thankful for the privacy that was offered to our family when I needed it. We truly felt so blessed to have such a strong support squad behind us.

Chatham-Kent council members were a huge part of my support team, and I owe thanks in particular to the councillors who took on added committee work to cover for me while I was away.

When I needed to direct my energy towards something positive during a tough time, the Chatham-Kent community helped me to raise over $30,000 for the breast clinic and diagnostic imaging at CKHA. Amazing!

Q. Going forward, will you also be returning to the workforce full time?

A. Yes, I will be gradually returning to my full-time role as the executive transformation lead with our Chatham-Kent Ontario Health Team in the coming weeks. For both my council and OHT roles, I will be taking the next couple of months to gradually get up to speed and return to work slowly. It feels good to be back, but slow and steady is my mantra.

Q. Have your goals and your viewpoint changed as the result of your experience?

A. I can definitely say that cancer has changed my perspective on what is deserving of my time and energy. Over the last year, I have learned to put myself and my family first. I have realized the impact of stress in one’s life, and am committed to invest in the bank of my own health, so that I can be the best person for my family, my career, and my community.

As a councillor, thinking about health promotion, wellness, and working towards making C-K a healthy community in a multitude of ways will be a notable theme in the motions I bring forward throughout the term.

Q. What advice do you have for people who find themselves facing breast cancer?

A. Every individual cancer journey is so different; it is challenging to give advice broadly. One quote that I appreciated in my journey was, “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”

To those in our community facing cancer, I would tell them that they are strong, and they can do hard things. For myself, spending time outdoors, drinking lots of water, and having at least one good friend to talk to were things that got me through the last year.

I also have a message to our community. October was breast cancer awareness month. Please take a moment to give yourself a breast exam each month, and schedule a mammogram (if over the age of 50 you do not need a referral in Ontario). Early detection of breast cancer can be life saving.

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