Whenever they could, Anne MacFarlane says the small group of hospital workers battling cancer tried to add some colour to their treatment days. Sometimes that meant taking a different route to the hospital, the change of scenery just enough to help them forget for a brief moment what their daily lives had become. Other times, they would add-in a shopping trip for wigs and hats to help mask what the chemotherapy had taken away. Through it all, says MacFarlane, they had each other: the jokes, the friendships, the company, helping them all make the best out of what was an incredibly dire situation.
“All of us who went through it together, we all became quite close,” MacFarlane said Friday from her home in Mission. “Instead of it being as dire as what it was, we kind of made jokes about it and tried to make the best of it.”
MacFarlane, 65, was one of seven women who around 15 years ago developed the same aggressive form of breast cancer while working in a lab at Mission Memorial Hospital. It was a case that received considerable publicity, both because of the rarity of such an occurrence and because of the ensuing decade-long fight waged by MacFarlane and two other women – Katrina Hammer and Patricia Schmidt – to receive workers’ compensation coverage. It was a fight that finally ended on Friday with a favourable ruling in the Supreme Court of Canada.
“It’s not sunk in yet,” MacFarlane said when asked to describe her emotions after such a long-journey. “You feel good.”
But there is also, undoubtedly, feelings of sadness and some lingering frustration from having to endure such an exhaustive and winding march to vindication, a journey that was marked by the loss of close friends and two separate battles with breast cancer that cast doubt on her own chances of survival.
MacFarlane said it was around 2000 when she found a lump on one of her breasts, the discovery coming about a year after her best friend, Maira, who also worked at the lab in Mission general, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Subsequent testing confirmed the friends had the same highly-aggressive form of cancer. Soon after, they learned that another co-worker had also developed breast cancer. And then another. And another.
“We found it strange we are all getting it,” says MacFarlane. “We started asking: ‘What is going on here?’”
While an eventual investigation of the lab in by Fraser Health was unable to determine a specific cause, MacFarlane believes exposure to incinerator fumes could have been a reason for the emergence of a cancer cluster in the lab.
The workers were also known to have worked with carcinogens.
MacFarlane, meanwhile, began radiation treatment and chemotherapy soon after being diagnosed. While her treatment was successful, she said Maira’s cancer proved fatal. And within two years, MacFarlane was again being treated for breast cancer.
This time, MacFarlane said the treatment included a double mastectomy on top of chemotherapy. A few years ago, she passed her 10-year cancer-free milestone. She retired from the lab seven years ago after a 37-year career there.
Looking back, MacFarlane remembers with frustration the many, often “rancorous” meetings with Fraser Health as part of the ongoing bid to receive workers compensation. At times, she said, it felt like the employer wanted to blame them for getting cancer.
“One of the things that was frustrating during that process was that they wanted to blame the victims,” she said. “They said ‘You can’t prove what it was.’ It was very frustrating for us and frustration for our union rep.”
MacFarlane says she now spends as much time as she can travelling with her husband, a former school teacher, her brush with mortality offering a constant reminder that one cannot take things for granted.
“It kind of impresses on you that you don’t have forever,” she said. “You can’t count on tomorrow.”