Nearly 20-year cancer survivor gives back for National Cancer Survivors Day

01/06/2019
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When Drea Palmer was told she would lose two fingers to cancer, she was devastated. As an artist, her hands are everything. But, as she would find out, losing her fingers was the least of her worries.

She started noticing symptoms in 1998 when she developed a mystery lump between her middle and index fingers on her right, dominant hand. It persisted for two years, initially labelled as a cyst, before doctors realized it was actually a tumour. At 25, she was diagnosed with sarcoma, an aggressive, malignant cancer of connective tissue.
 
“Cancer doesn’t happen to someone like me – young, healthy and happy,” Drea remembers thinking. “But it does, and it did.”

Drea was referred to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre where she received radiation and surgery to remove the soft tissue between her fingers and graft soft tissue from her arm.

A year later, in April 2002, she woke up with a swollen armpit and couldn’t move her arm. The cancer had spread to her armpit and her lungs.

“I stopped breathing,” says Drea. “I figured if it had spread to my lungs, then that was it. I was going to die.”

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Given a 30 per cent chance that the chemotherapy would be effective and a 5 per cent chance of survival, Drea bucked the odds and made a full recovery, stunning her doctors.

She attributes her sudden and unexpected recovery to the power of mindfulness, visualization and meditation.

“I was working with a psychotherapist who would do guided meditation with me,” says Drea. “It felt good because it felt like I was in control of something and I could actively do something to fight.”

Drea is thankful for the care and treatment she received at The Princess Margaret and says the Cancer Centre is “one of a kind.”

“That hospital is the most amazing hospital that I have ever been in,” says Drea. “The whole staff — every person, every department —they treat you as a whole patient, not just your hand or your lungs. They treat you like a human, recognizing and working with your mental and emotional needs. It was very much like a family.”

It’s been 17 years since she completed treatments and 19 years since her initial diagnosis. Drea, now 44, moved to Calgary three months after her treatment and is enjoying life with her husband, Jamie, and two children, Josie, 10, and Thomas, 8.

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She's also taken up art again, a lifelong passion of hers that she's now made into a career.

“I want to share my story, offering hope to those facing similar circumstances,” says Drea. “What I desperately needed when I was diagnosed was to know that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence and that it is possible to survive, even when the statistics aren’t in your favour.” 

This year, she’s celebrating National Cancer Survivors Day on June 2 by donating all profits from her art sales during the month of June to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Tom Baker Cancer Centre. 

To support, visit dreapalmer.com or find her on Instagram: @dreapalmerart.

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