By Tanya Alexander
Sandee Thompson is a warrior.
She has battled and won the fight against breast cancer – not once, but twice. She has had two mastectomies and several reconstruction surgeries with ensuing complications, which are still ongoing. But when speaking with Sandee, you won’t find a downtrodden soul; this woman is uncompromisingly positive. And though she stands at just 4’ 10” her vibrant personality can fill a room.
Armed with a great sense of humour, Sandee calls herself “a work of art,” changing constantly in physical form due to the evolution of her healing process.
“The first time they found cancer in 2010, it was identified via mammogram. I had a lumpectomy and went on with my life,” said Sandee. “Four years later, it came back.”
Sandee, an English as a Foreign Language instructor, was working in the Middle East State of Qatar with College of the North Atlantic – Qatar (CNA-Q) when she received the second diagnosis.
“When I got the diagnosis in September 2014, I called my doctor back in Canada – she said a mastectomy was my only choice since I had (undergone) radiation the first time. And she said, ‘You need to decide now,’” said Sandee.
“I have a friend here in Qatar who had a reoccurrence. I had gone with her then and her doctor dealt with her beautifully. He was calm, and he said, ‘How can I help?’ I really liked his approach, so I wanted to go to him for my care. I got a copy of all my scans from Canada and met with him that first time and he said, ‘See you here Wednesday at 8 o’clock.’ And that was that – I had the surgery two weeks later in Doha.”
Sandee decided to have a bilateral mastectomy and immediate reconstruction. They used saline expanders, which are meant to slowly expand the skin to be able to fit in softer, silicone/saline implants.
But infection after infection, called cellulitis, plagued her, as her body was essentially rejecting the foreign substance.
“But I was persistent and when things calmed down, and my skin had expanded to about an A cup, we switched the expanders out for what were meant to be permanent implants,” Sandee explained.
These also had to be replaced because her chest wall was too tight, and there was too much skin left over the muscle. They were also different heights, and because the muscle on her left side had essentially been shredded by the radiation, they had to use artificial skin (Alloderm®) to make a pocket for the implant to sit in.
For Sandee, who was originally DDD cup, reconstruction has been very challenging journey; even more distressing than the cancer.
“The right implant was fine. It healed well and felt as normal as something under your skin can feel. The left side wouldn’t cooperate. I developed a tiny hole in the suture line and one week later, a hole developed that got increasingly bigger as the summer progressed. I was told the implant had to come out temporarily, so in fall 2016 we removed the implant on Halloween – seemed like the perfect day to do it,” she laughed.
The tear in her skin had to be sewn back up twice, and she spent nearly a year dealing with wound care.
“Essentially, my skin would not close so I spent 10 months with a toonie-sized hole in my skin … like a permanent rip on the seam of your favourite pair of jeans. Finally, I said, ‘I’m done!’ We took the other implant out.”
Sandee went in for revision surgery in October 2017, and had a hematoma removed that had developed under the radiated skin. She is officially implant free, though still dealing with a small seroma (fluid) that won’t go away.
“They are now trying liquid tetracycline injections, purchased at a veterinarian clinic, since it has been trialed in other countries. Fingers crossed! I am told eventually it will stop so I am not worrying about it. I don’t have time to waste on worrying,” she says.
“I live my life large and live my life well. Everybody should, because you never know when it’s gone.”
Enter the Dragon
Sandee discovered Dragon Boating back at home in Canada after her first diagnosis.
“I had paddled in Nova Scotia when I was first diagnosed. I didn’t want to talk about cancer. That’s how I dealt with it – I paddled and I lifted weights. I needed action. I needed to get healthy.”
She turned to Dragon Boating again in Qatar after her second diagnosis, and it eventually led to the formation of an official team in November 2014. The name, The Doha Wireless Warriors, is derived from the need to be culturally sensitive and also represent breast cancer.
“’Wireless’ is because after radiation or any kind of breast cancer surgery, you cannot or do not want to wear wired bras any more. They hurt your ribs and press against your lymph nodes,” Sandee explained. “I chose ‘Warriors’ because many women feel that this journey is also a battle to be fought, and hopefully won! And because the Amazons used to remove one breast to be better able to shoot their bows with precision. Many survivors have had pieces of themselves ‘amputated’ to fight the disease so the image seemed poignant to me.”
According to The Doha Wireless Warriors website (www.dww.qa/), breast cancer Dragon Boat teams started 22 years ago on Canada’s west coast by Dr. Don MacKenzie. He conducted a study with 22 breast cancer survivors in Vancouver to show women that they could still be strong and could exercise after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. He also wanted to demonstrate to medical practitioners that women could help manage their lymphedema (a swelling of the arm when lymph nodes have been removed) by paddling.
“And guess what? He was right!” said Sandee. “There are now hundreds of breast cancer Dragon Boat teams all over the world, including ours in Qatar.”
Sandee’s original plan was to have an all-women breast cancer team just like Dr. MacKenzie’s original idea, but she soon realized that there was just as much a need for the supporters to have a place to gather. So it has turned into a survivor/supporter/community team.
“It is more of a community group and there are members in the team who have had thyroid, brain, colon and breast cancer, as well as a lot of people who have had a loved one who has experienced cancer,” said Sandee.
“We often get new members because someone on the team tells a friend about us and they join us for the support. We support one another more through being together and doing things than talking, but there is always someone available should the need be there.”
She says that many members of the team are facilitators in their work places and speak on behalf of survivors at meetings and other forums. Members have spoken at the University of Calgary, the American Women’s League, College of the North Atlantic-Qatar, various events through the Qatar Cancer Society and Hamad Medical Corporation.
“A few members have written blogs, created videos and written articles on our behalf. If you Google us, you will find a few things out there. Plus we have a Facebook page and Instagram account. Not a lot of people talk about breast cancer, so it has given us the opportunity to speak on behalf of the community.”
In the Pink
The Doha Wireless Warriors’ team colour is pink – boat, t-shirts, life jackets – everything is pink.
“It’s to represent breast cancer, of course, but also because the other teams in the community foisted it on me,” she laughed. “The group that brought the jackets in for me insisted that we needed pink to represent the cause … the team itself wanted pink t-shirts for the same reason, and in the end, I started to embrace it as well, particularly because it was a hot, vibrant pink.”
Some would even say that the brilliant colour suits Sandee’s personality, and the tone of the team, perfectly – strong, energetic, and fun.
“We race with the other teams, but we don’t take it all that seriously. Mostly, we just have fun together. We usually go for breakfast on the weekend after paddling and sometimes have extra events like barbeques at Sealine Beach, or dhow (boat) trips, or potlucks,” Sandee explained.
She said they have also put together a WhatsApp group solely for breast cancer survivors to chat and support one another when someone has a specific question, because many of the women she has met here in Doha, who have or had breast cancer, are not able or don’t think they are able to paddle, especially during the hot months.
Sandee herself had to cease paddling while she was healing from the infections for a time. But she’s been back at it now for several months.
“It feels so good to be paddling as well as coaching … I am thrilled to be alive and healthy and continue to thrive and be incredibly happy.”
When asked if she’d do things the same way after her diagnosis, knowing what she knows now, she responded, “Probably, since I had no way of knowing the outcome. Some 40 per cent of all women who have implants have issues, usually those of us who had radiation first. But since my skin was fine on the outside, we had no way of knowing what internal damage had been caused. Only time told that story,” Sandee shared.
“But I don’t regret any of it. I would have regretted not trying.”