CENTRE BURLINGTON, N.S. — A five-time breast cancer survivor has found the key to happiness: taking time to appreciate every moment.
Pat Westlake, 73, has been battling cancer since 1999 and hasn't let the disease slow her down.
“By the grace of God I'm here because I've had cancer five times,” she said.
The Centre Burlington resident was first diagnosed with breast cancer in December 1999 and had her first surgery — a lumpectomy with radiation treatments — in January 2000. She thought the worst was over.
“Then I was great; life was going on just beautiful for 10 years. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in the other breast,” she said.
Her breast was removed, and she underwent another bout of radiation.
In 2012, a check up revealed that she had breast cancer again, this time in the breast that had the lumpectomy. Her breast was removed and she underwent chemotherapy and radiation.
“When I was all finished treatment, I went back expecting a clear bill of health when they told me I had metastasized breast cancer on the outside chest wall. So, chemo again,” she said. Two years later, more breast cancer was discovered. She's currently undergoing chemotherapy.
“I don't count the years; I count the days that God lets me live,” said Westlake, who is a born again Christian.
“Make the best of every day that you're allotted because you don't know when your number is going to be called,” she said.
Finding dragon boat racing
Westlake can't help but laugh when she recalls how she came to be a dragon boat racer.
She attended a cancer support group in Halifax after her initial battle with cancer. While there, she met some New Glasgow dragon boat racers.
“When we had a chance to socialize, I went over to talk to them. They told me it was for breast cancer survivors paddling for the cure, one stroke at a time,” she recalled.
“So this one girl, Evelyn, said 'you should try it.' I said, 'oh gosh no, that's not for me.' I'm afraid of water, really.”
But Evelyn Sutherland, of Truro, stayed in contact with Westlake throughout the winter and finally convinced her to come to their first practice in the spring.
“We got out on the water and I'm telling you, my life changed there. I couldn't believe I was doing this and I couldn't believe that all of these ladies were breast cancer survivors and most of them, at the time, were older than I was,” she said, recalling every little detail about her first time on the water.
After the second night out on the lake, she was hooked.
“The breast cancer community is like a big family of sisters. I never had a sister. Well, now I have hundreds of them,” said Westlake.
She's been paddling with the New Glasgow-based A Breast A River Dragon Boat team ever since, and has participated in a few international dragon boat competitions.
“I thank God every day for how he allows me to do what I can do, the strength that he gives me,” she said.
And that strength is leading her to Italy next summer.
Westlake has been selected to travel to Florence, Italy to represent the Maritimes at an international dragon boat competition starting at the end of June 2018. The trip costs $7,000, minimum.
Members of the Hants West Relay for Life committee are planning a ticket auction fundraiser to help offset the cost of Westlake's upcoming trip.
On Nov. 5, at the Hants County War Memorial Community Centre, a ticket auction and silent auction will be held from 1-3 p.m. There will also be a large bake table.
Bonnie Smith and Pam Northup are helping organize the fundraiser and say it's the least they could do to help.
“Pat has been a real ambassador for Relay for Life for nine years — with the Windsor relay,” said Smith. “She's done so much for relay that we decided it would be nice to do something back for her. This trip means a lot to her.”
Northup said Westlake is a fighter and both women agree she's an inspiration.
“How does somebody go through this so many times and be so positive and uplifting about it? She inspires everybody around her,” said Smith.
“Pat's a wonderful person. She gives so much. She volunteers. She gives, gives, gives,” added Northup.
As for Westlake, she's floored by how the community has rallied to support her.
“I wasn't going to fundraise but these fantastic Relay for Life gals and the Windsor Wrecks team surprised me with this auction that they're going to have,” said Westlake, who has been diligently collecting recyclables since learning about the trip last year. She's collected nearly $900 to date, and has asked friends and family to forgo birthday and Christmas gifts in order to pay for the two-week trip.
“They've been so supportive all along with their love and companionship and friendship. It keeps me going. I want to keep well to help out with the Relay for Life,” she said.
The Relay will be celebrating 10 years in West Hants on June 2.
Strangers have also been approaching Westlake in grocery stores and around town in order to donate. As she tells a story about a woman handing her $100, she gets teary-eyed.
“It makes me cry. I'm overwhelmed. I know that I'm blessed to live in this community,” Westlake said.
As for advice for people who have been diagnosed with cancer or who are survivors, she said the biggest thing is getting up off the couch and doing things.
“You've got to keep going. There is life after breast cancer, believe it or not. There is life after breast cancer — and a good life. I've had a wonderful 17 years since my diagnosis,” said Westlake.
“Cancer has been a blessing in many ways, for the people I've met, for the places I've been that I would never have been if I hadn't have been on this team,” she continued.
“You can't dwell on what's happening. Get up and get at it.”
For those looking to support Westlake but can't attend the Nov. 5 event, Northup said they can get in touch with her (email@example.com) and she'll make sure the funds go to the trip.