Cheryl Mauthe and her eight-year-old son Colin, bonded by cancer, wrestle on the kitchen floor in the evening light. Colin was diagnosed with leukemia in August 2012 and has been fighting the disease ever since. In February 2014, Cheryl was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32. The single mother had to spend the year dealing with her own illness while working to take care of a sick Colin and his healthy younger sister Emily, 6. “I thought there’s no way we’re both going to make it... life doesn’t always have a happy ending.”

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Cancer Normal

2014


About a week after Cheryl had been diagnosed with breast cancer, she broke the news to eight-year-old Colin and six-year-old Emily at a family meeting.

Colin hugged his mom: “We’re cancer buddies? You have cancer, too?”

And then, she recalls, “Emily starts to get upset and says, ‘It’s not fair, everybody has cancer except me!’ and storms to her bedroom.

“And I’m sitting there thinking, I can’t believe this is my family. I have one child that’s excited because I have cancer with him and I have another child that’s upset because she doesn’t have cancer.”

Cancer was a very normal word in Cheryl's household. She had spent the past year-and-a-half caring for her son Colin as he fought leukemia. She was well acquainted with chemotherapy, lumbar punctures, emergency room visits and the other daily aspects of cancer life.

But when she was diagnosed in breast cancer in February 2014 at the age of 32, she thought the odds of both her and Colin each beating their cancers were too stacked against them.

"I thought there’s no way we’re both going to make it... life doesn’t always have a happy ending."

Despite her fears, Cheryl was intent on showing her children she could be strong enough to take care of them as well as her own illness.

She refused to let cancer define their lives.

Cheryl replays her conversation with Dr. Ethel MacIntosh in her head after their first meeting at the Breast Health Centre in Winnipeg. Dr. MacIntosh convinced Cheryl to opt for a lumpectomy in hopes she wouldn't need more invasive surgery. Unfortunately the lumpectomy would reveal the need for a bilateral mastectomy.

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Colin eats a doughnut brought by his grandmother in a bed in the Brandon Regional Health Centre emergency room during a visit in March for a fever.

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Cheryl is very conscious about giving her family as normal a life as possible despite the hands they've been dealt. This means taking time to play with her kids despite how lousy she feels.

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After the kids go downstairs to play, the weight of the following day's impending double mastectomy finally gets to Cheryl and she sobs in the arms of her friend Annie Jago-Fordyce. Within a few minutes she dries her tears and heads downstairs to play with her kids one last time before heading to Winnipeg for the surgery.

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At Health Sciences Centre Winnipeg the stress is getting to Cheryl and she buries her head in her hands while waiting to meet with the plastic surgeon prior to surgery.

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Cheryl is wheeled to an operating room for her double mastectomy and reconstruction. Barely three month's have passed since her diagnosis and she going under the knife for the second time.

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Three month's after her diagnosis, Cheryl is in the operating room for the second time after a previous lumpectomy proved the need for a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. As fear envelops Cheryl and she begins to break down on the OR table, she is comforted by Karen Sagness, a Clinical Resource Nurse for Plastic Surgery and Regina Kostetsky, an Anesthesia Clinical Assistant, who brush her hair out of her face and wipe away her tears. "I really don't want to do this" sobbed Cheryl.

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Dr. Ethel MacIntosh's (second from right) and Dr. Edward Buchel's (bottom centre) surgical teams work in tandem removing the cancerous tissue from Cheryl's breasts and harvesting replacement tissue from her abdomen. The surgery lasted ten hours due to the tedious process of attaching the tiny blood vessels in Cheryl’s breasts to the new tissue harvested from her abdomen that will replace to cancerous tissue. Cheryl spent four days in hospital following the surgery.

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Surgical instruments including scalpels and clamps sit on a tray within easy reach of the surgical teams alongside tissue from Cheryl's abdomen that will be used to replace the tissue removed from her breasts.

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As the surgery enters its seventh hour Dr. Edward Buchel and Dr. Jing Zhang work with their eyes glued to microscopes so they can have a better view of the tiny blood vessels they are working to re-attach in Cheryl's breasts.

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Five-days after surgery Cheryl lies down as her mother changes her bandages. Drainage tubes collect fluid that builds up at the surgical sites. "I look like they kicked the crap out of me", she says. "This is probably my most painful experience ever but It feels good to be home. It was nice to sleep through the night last night."

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Emily, who will spend hours at a time playing on swings, laugh's as Cheryl plays with her in the backyard of their home a few weeks after her surgery. When Cheryl broke the news to Colin and Emily that she had cancer, Emily stormed to her room in tears upset that both her brother and mother had cancer and she was the odd one out. She is her family's biggest cheerleader however. For weeks after Cheryl's diagnosis she would make her mother cards as soon as she walked in the door from school. "She is my heart," says Cheryl.

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Emily shares a bite of her s'more with her mom while the family has a fire in the backyard a few weeks after Cheryl's surgery in May.

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Cheryl wipes tears of frustration from her eyes while having her abdomen checked out by a doctor after part of her stitches opened following her bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction, which used tissue from her abdomen. She was told that the portion of the stitched incision that opened would have to remain open and be let to heal slowly as she began chemotherapy.

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Colin and Cheryl compare scars from their ports that they use to receive their chemotherapy treatments. The port is a small medical appliance surgically implanted just under the skin. It connects to a vein and allows medical staff to administer drugs (in their case chemotherapy drugs) and draw blood without needing to poke around for veins at each appointment. While Cheryl was just beginning her chemotherapy treatment, Colin had already been receiving chemo for close to two years. Currently he receives maintenance chemo doses which are at lower levels and don't affect him as much as the initial harsher treatments.

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Cheryl's hair is swept up after she had it cut short by Romnie at The Ultimate Hair Centre. Her hair began to fall out within days of the first chemo treatment. Within another week it would all be gone.

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Unsure about her new look Cheryl runs her hand through her short locks. Her friends rallied around her at The Ultimate Hair Centre cracking jokes and keeping her glass topped up with wine.

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With her 1972 Chevy Rally Nova, willed to her by her father Doug, parked in the background, Cheryl visits his grave at the Brandon Municipal Cemetery, a ritual she honours every time she drives the classic car. Doug Mauthe passed away from ALS on Dec. 14, 2012, less than four months after Colin's diagnosis. “I am a much stronger person than I ever gave myself credit for... The three of us, we love each other tremendously and with love there’s nothing we can’t get through at this point.”

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A blanket keeps a tired Cheryl warm as she undergoes her third chemotherapy treatment at the Western Manitoba Cancer Centre in Brandon in early August. She felt more tired than during the first two treatments but still felt pretty good overall. That would change with treatment number four.

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Pencils, erasers and binders are scanned through the checkout till during family back-to-school shopping at Walmart in August. Despite how Cheryl felt from the chemotherapy, she wouldn't let it stop her from being there for her kids.

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In addition to all the negative side effects of chemotherapy, such as the pain and nausea, there is also the monotony of the treatments. Cheryl checks her phone while waiting out her fourth treatment at CancerCare's Western Manitoba Cancer Centre in August. The first three treatments didn't bother her very much, but the final three brought intense pain and constant nausea.

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Sunlight bounces off Cheryl's necklace as well as an IV line hooked up to Cheryl's port during her fourth chemotherapy treatment at the Western Manitoba Cancer Centre in Brandon in late August.

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A kiss before Emily and Colin head off on a bike ride with their dad Mike on a warm August evening. Despite Cheryl and Mike being divorced, he stepped up considerably over the summer and fall to help out while Cheryl wasn't doing well.

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Two days after Cheryl's final chemotherapy treatment exhaustion and frustration set in while sorting out a plan for keeping Colin healthy after Emily contracted fifth disease, a common viral infection, at school in October. Colin had already been removed from school to protect him and now he and Emily would have to be separated for over a week while her virus ran it's course. The chemotherapy weakens Colin's immune system making common viruses very dangerous to him.

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The pain from the chemotherapy kept Cheryl from sleeping. “I’m just looking forward to getting normal back, whatever that is. It’s been so long since we’ve had a normal life,” she whispered. “I want to complain about how bad Mondays suck and how awesome payday Fridays are, you know?"

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Morphine wouldn't take the pain of chemotherapy away. The anti-nauseants didn't make Cheryl feel any better. A friend brought over some pot and said try this. A few times when nothing else worked and she was the only one in the house, Cheryl smoked up. After round four it took the edge off. She didn't feel fantastic but didn't hurt as much. Rounds five and six were so bad that nothing seemed to help.

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Emily and Cheryl comfort Colin after a painful flu shot in November. Colin has an above average familiarity with needles and various other medical procedures but the incessant treatment proves tiring.

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Frustrated with missing school again and having to do work from home Colin cries. Every time there was a viral illness at the school such as fifth disease or hand, foot and mouth disease Colin would have to be pulled out of school because of his compromised immune system due to his ongoing chemotherapy treatment. Often his sister Emily would have to be pulled out as well and when she contracted fifth disease in the fall, the two kids had to be separated for over a week. Colin stayed with Cheryl and Emily went to their dad's.

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"Everybody’s like ‘How do you do it? I don’t know how you do it?’ You just do it. If I go down that rabbit hole, it’s going to take me forever to find my way back out. So it’s not that you don’t process things, and it’s not that you don’t deal with things. It’s just you know what to avoid and what are your triggers and emotionally it’s not best for you to go there sometimes because you have other things that are needing your energy and that you have to focus on. And being a complete mess isn’t going to help. It’s only going to hurt the situation."

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An unconscious Colin is rolled onto his side while being readied for a lumbar puncture at the Children's Hospital in Winnipeg in October. Colin goes to Winnipeg once a month for chemotherapy treatment and must undergo a lumbar puncture every three month's to confirm the cancer hasn't spread to his spinal fluid or brain.

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Spinal fluid drips from a needle and is collected by a resident as Colin undergoes a lumbar puncture.

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A kiss on the cheek as Colin slowly wakes up after having a lumbar puncture and receiving chemotherapy at the Children's Hospital in Winnipeg in October. In November Cheryl was declared cancer free. Colin will finish his three-year chemotherapy regimen on October 30, 2015 and will hopefully be declared cancer free as well. "My hope is to have that one day where we can finally celebrate both Colin and I being cancer free... I can't wait to see what we will be when our life is no longer doctors and pokes and chemo and treatments and we can just enjoy the new normal, whatever that may be for us."

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Two days before a family trip to Alabama to visit Cheryl's brother, Emily helps with packing by crawling into a suitcase. The trip was a much needed getaway for the family after a hard year.

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Cheryl unwinds with her best friend Annie Jago-Fordyce at the Bands on the Run concert at Westman Place in early December, one of her first big outings since being declared cancer free . When Cheryl first lost her hair to the chemotherapy in June she didn't have the confidence to leave home without a wig on. By the fall she had owned her new look and barely ever bothered with the wigs anymore.

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Cheryl lies still while getting a tattoo done across her ribs by Troy Lennon, co-owner of Warlock Tattoo on Park Ave. in April 2015. Cheryl got the following lines tattooed on her ribs just bellow one of her mastectomy scars. "Our scars make us beautiful.

Cheryl lies still while getting a tattoo done across her ribs by Troy Lennon, co-owner of Warlock Tattoo on Park Ave. in April 2015. Cheryl got the following lines tattooed on her ribs just bellow one of her mastectomy scars. "Our scars make us beautiful. Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you."

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