A film gives clarity to young cancer patients

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      When Anna Peled was 21, she was living the typical student's life: she shared an apartment with her two best friends, she was working on her Bachelor of Arts degree at UBC, and she was holding down three part-time jobs. During Reading Week, Peled felt like she was coming down with the flu. She was tired and had a cough, a fever, and chest pain. Staff at the campus health clinic dismissed her malaise as stress-induced. But when her chest pain persisted, her family doctor ordered a chest X-ray. Peled learned there was a chance that she was dealing with something much more serious than influenza. Test results confirmed she had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Peled was in a state of shock.

      Peled, who was born in Israel and grew up in North Vancouver, quickly started six rounds of chemotherapy, followed by a month of radiation.

      That was five years ago. Peled tells the Georgia Straight that the harsh treatment itself was just one of the hard parts of surviving cancer. So was facing a life-threatening illness at such a young age.

      “I had just moved out [from her parents' home],” Peled says in an interview. “I was at a place of just starting to be independent. A really big thing for young people with cancer is having to move back to their parents' house. I'm sitting in my bedroom in my parents' home now, and it's taking me a long time to feel ready to take that step” of moving out on her own again.

      Having to depend on family is just one thing that young people with cancer face. Age-related issues will be the focus of an evening at the B.C. Cancer Agency next Thursday (March 29). Peled will speak about her own experiences following the screening of a new documentary called Chasing Rainbows: Young Adults Living With Cancer at the agency's Gordon and Leslie Diamond Family Theatre (675 West 10th Avenue).

      The film is a follow-up to Sara's Story, which tells the story of B.C.'s Sara Taylor Gibson, who was 23 when she was diagnosed with a rare soft-tissue sarcoma in 1997. She got married exactly a year later but died on July 17, 2000. The 43-minute Chasing Rainbows follows a living-room discussion that Taylor Gibson held with five other men and women aged 19 to 29 who were also living with cancer. One of her last wishes was to have Chasing Rainbows finished and distributed across North America and Europe. Her mother, Pat Taylor, has passionately taken up the task and is working with the support of the B.C. Cancer Foundation and the B.C. Cancer Agency to get the film seen.

      Taylor, who produced Chasing Rainbows, explains that when her daughter was diagnosed there was little information available that was geared to young people with cancer. Rather, most of the material focused on issues relevant to people much older and at different stages in life—professionally, financially, socially, and emotionally. Taylor Gibson was determined to change that and to help others despite her deteriorating health.

      “She was driven by the fact that if she could make a difference after she died, then she had made sure her life had value and worth,” Taylor says in a phone interview. “She was born to this life to teach us a lot about compassion and drive and”¦to make sure dreams happen, no matter what's in front of you.” (The documentary is available at public libraries and through various cancer organizations. Details are at www.chasingrainbowsproduction.com/.)

      Although Peled never met Taylor Gibson, both women found solace at Callanish Healing Retreats Society (www.callanish.org/), which runs the Young Adult Cancer Network. The group meets on the second Wednesday of every month at Callanish (2277 West 10th Avenue) and offers support to people aged 18 to 30 who have cancer or a history of the disease.

      Thanks to the Internet, there's also more information available to people like Taylor Gibson and Peled than ever before. Take RealTime Cancer (www.realtimecancer.org/), a Web site that allows young adults with cancer to connect with and support each other and “share their sh*t”. The site covers a vast range of topics, including nutrition, compromised immunity, and how to tell friends you have cancer, as well as ways the disease can affect a person's social life, job security, relationships, sex life, and fertility.

      The last is one aspect of having cancer that hit Peled hard. Chemotherapy can render men and women infertile. Peled just happened to stumble upon that information the night before she started treatment.

      “I was reading the forms that go along with all the drugs,” Peled explains, “and on the first page they were talking about infertility. I bawled my eyes out. My doctor didn't sit down and talk to me about infertility being a side effect. No one had that talk with me. It could have been dealt with differently.”

      Although Peled has passed the five-year mark of being cancer-free, secondary cancers are another long-term side effect of chemo. She's at risk for diseases like breast cancer and lung cancer as a result of the treatment.

      Then there's the dating issue. “If you're not in a serious relationship, you have to ask, ”˜When do you tell someone? How do you tell someone? What will their reaction be?'?”

      Love, sex, and romance all show up in Chasing Rainbows. Peled says the doc is full of frank discussion, making it an invaluable resource for young people with cancer. Besides being a compelling film, for Taylor Gibson it's also a dream come true.