The Ovarian Gang
Bianca Hayes story below has led to her doing some amazing things in the mental health community and in life in general. She is now the fastest woman to cycle Trans-Canada, it only took her 19 days 10 hours to go from Vancouver to Halifax.
Learn more about Bianca and all she is doing to help grow awareness on ovarian cancer at her website.
I lost my sister. Those words still feel very strange to say.
Katrina was my favourite person, connected to me in a way that only a sister can be. Our birthdays were exactly 5 1/2 years apart to the day, hers October 3rd mine April 3rd. Growing up I insisted that I got to celebrate a half birthday on her day and she would always allow it. Even our names are connected, my mom loved them in the Shakespeare play The Taming of The Shrew and we later loved them in the 90s movie 10 Things I Hate About You.
She finished my sentences and our references were always the same, lines from some Joss Whedon show or Monty Python, debating the 007 movies and endless sarcasm.
She was such a big part of who I wanted to be as I was growing up. She was calm where I was emotional and knew how to balance me.
Losing her is still something I don’t fully understand. She died of Ovarian Cancer just over a year after being diagnosed. The shock of her diagnosis was just something I had grappled with when her health took a turn, she went into the hospital in January 2018 and never got to go home.
Our family spent months in the hospital and then later the palliative care ward after finding out there was nothing more they could do.
And so began the strangest time of my life, a constant dance and balance of life outside and inside of those hospital walls. We ordered food from her favourite restaurants, watched movies together but never spoke about what was about to happen.
Her body was slowly taken over by the cancer, it spread and grew inside of her, got so big it crowded her organs and was visibly growing. I think it was the worst part, to be able to see what was killing her but be unable to do anything about it.
I spent one night alone with her, watching a movie and bantering like we had done so many times. I gave her her last haircut and hid a piece of her hair to keep, my mom has the cuttings from our first haircuts as babies and I thought she should have Katrina’s final one as well. It was the strangest impulse, to hide and pocket a scrap of her hair and feel like it may be the last piece of her we would have to hold onto.
And then in April I got the call, she was going to be put under until her body couldn’t continue, the discomfort and pain had gotten to be too much for her and she was ready for it to be over. I knew it had been coming and it sounded like a peaceful option, I rushed to the hospital from work so that I could say goodbye.
Katrina never got that peace, after we spoke with her and they administered the drugs I sat with her alone in the room. I will never forget the sound of her struggling to breathe and then the next minutes that felt like hours as she was awake, in pain and fighting through the drugs while her body shut down. Nurses and doctors doing everything they could to help her while my mom, partner and I looked on in agony.
I was there for her last breath and still can’t accept that she’s gone. I see movies and want to tell her about them and I walk around feeling like a piece of me is missing. I’m missing the person who understood me completely, who loved me even though I’ve fucked up at every opportunity and still never gave up on me.
Grieving her has not been a straight path, the feeling of loss curves in and out of my life and catches me by surprise. I can talk about her and smile, tell stories and remember happy times we shared. Those final moments with her are locked inside of me, too horrible to think about and too hard to face. They wait around the dark corners of my life and pounce when things get difficult, the complete feeling of powerlessness brings me to my knees and takes my breath away.
Talking about loss with people is hard, we sanitize so much of life that we don’t see or hear about the darkest moments and the loss that we all inevitably face when we lose a loved one. It’s the first five seconds of those conversations that I hate, that lapse as people pause because she is dead and talking about the dead feels unnatural. Katrina may be gone but she lives through me and remembering her is all I have left, telling people about things she liked, jokes she told and what made her who she was helps me to preserve her in my memory and the world.
Feeling like we are so disconnected from death makes it that much harder to talk about. The most beautiful and tragic part of life is that it ends and we aren’t doing any service to the people we love by avoiding it.
I’ve dealt with my grief in a few ways, mostly unconventional and not all healthy. I removed myself from big chunks of my life, scared to meet people and do things. I felt like any new people in my life were another risk of loss. My sister, grandfather and grandmother all died within a couple of years of one another and the pain of that has changed me.
At Katrina’s memorial the statistics for ovarian cancer were shared by the host of the ceremony and left me feeling angry and determined to do something. I started cycling to train for the ride to conquer cancer in 2018, I felt exhausted but so inspired afterwards that I started planning something bigger I could do to raise awareness for ovarian cancer. I planned to ride to San Francisco a year later, it was a challenge but something I could fit into my work vacation time and seemed like it was possible with some more training.
I trained myself and while I had no idea what I would be up against I completed the ride in 9 days. It felt like a massive accomplishment and yet I had a hard time reconciling the two people inside of me. On one hand I did this thing, raised money for a cause I care about and felt like it had a positive impact on the world. On the other I still felt scared and lost, exhausted from constantly pushing away from grief, feeling like it was an ongoing battle to not let it swallow me.
Cycling and exercise have been outlets, long distances on an open road give me time to process my thoughts and sort through my emotions. They have helped but I am not healed, there are these sayings I hear that ‘exercise is my therapy’ and it unfortunately just isn’t true. If I open the lid inside of me all of the fear and pain are still there, raw and open to the world.
So, for now, I am sorting through it as best I can, still processing things but with the lump I feel in my throat I know that the rent is due on my grief and I will need to pay it soon. It will be time to sort through these emotions with a professional and stop running.
Cycling has helped me gain a sense of control and power back, I feel more brave having challenged myself, riding across the country last year and training for another go. But it feels like if I slow down for too long everything will come crashing down around me, I’ve started looking for a therapist and know that is the next challenge I have to face and it’s scarier than anything I’ve ever done.