It was already a sunny day on Yarmouth’s waterfront a few years back.
But the yellow paint that local resident Sandy Dennis was adding to a building on Water Street made the day even more bright and cheerful.
“You’re doing this by yourself?” she was asked.
She explained there were some other people that were supposed to have turned out but didn’t. So yes, there she stood on the ladder, getting the job done.
It was part of the All Hands On Deck initiative that was happening in Yarmouth at the time. But even without being urged or encouraged to help beautify her town, it’s something she would have done anyway.
It’s just the type of person she was.
In an August 2018 interview with the Tri-County Vanguard, Dennis – who was a councillor with Yarmouth Town Council – shared several quotes, one of them being, “Cancer is only going to be a chapter in your life, not the whole story.”
It’s words she drew inspiration from.
But living with and battling stage 4 terminal cancer, it was Sandy Dennis herself who was providing inspiration.
Despite the pain she was enduring – excruciating at times – she never stopped advocating for the community and its residents. She pushed for improvements to cancer care to help lessen stresses and burdens that people who had to access treatment in Halifax were experiencing. When she could, she still attended council meetings. And in recent months, beautiful hand-created cards she had made – each its own work of art – were sold to raise funds for the Gilles Boudreau and Friends Cancer Help Fund.
It was with a heavy heart that Dennis’ husband Ken posted on Sandy’s Facebook page on Feb. 20 that she had passed away earlier in the day, surrounded by family.
And it was with a heavy heart that many in Yarmouth, and beyond, read the post and then started to express their condolences.
Dennis was first elected to Yarmouth town council in 2012 and re-elected during the 2016 municipal vote. She was a businesswoman in the community, having owned and operated Sandy’s Gifts for just over two decades.
She was very public about her battle with cancer, never pulling punches about what she was going through. She shared news about her good days, and the days that were pretty hard.
She said it was a shock when she was diagnosed with cancer in February 2017.
“I went in with pains in my stomach. When they did the CAT Scan on my stomach they saw the mass on my lung. I had no idea that I had cancer,” she had told the Vanguard.
Yes, she took time to cry. But then she moved on. “I deal with it, that’s just the type of person I am,” she had said.
She had a lot to deal with.
After her initial diagnosis the cancer later spread to her spine, bones, into both lungs, and she had tumours on her brain. Asked if she hated cancer, surprisingly in the 2018 interview she said she didn’t.
In fact, she said she felt blessed.
“I feel that it gave me a way to help other people. I would never have known what people go through, and I wouldn’t have been able to advocate for them, if I didn’t know,” she said, her voice choked with emotion. “So to me it’s a blessing. It’s like another chapter in my life.”
Still, cancer robbed of her opportunities. While there were times she could function, there were other times – for extended periods – she could barely function at all. It bothered her that she couldn’t be out in the community as much as she had always been, attending and supporting events and doing things to help her community.
Before her cancer, it was rare to attend any event in Yarmouth dealing with veterans where Dennis wasn’t present. She said her support for veterans and the military stemmed largely from the fact that amongst their children, she and her husband had two sons who were active in the Armed Forces. And she supported countless other community events too, sometimes being the first on the scene when events were taking place. Armed with her iPad, she'd then share photos on social media.
When hurricane Arthur, as a post-tropical storm, blew through the area in 2014 causing damage, she helped to organizer cleanups in hard-hit areas, herself dragging away fallen tree branches and debris alongside others.
Dennis had a hard childhood growing up. She said she knew what it was like to be poor. To be shuffled around. By the age of 15 she was on her own. She believed this is why she always wanted to help others. And it’s why she had her ‘just deal with it’ approach to life.
In addition to the way cancer interrupted her community service, another thing that really bothered her about cancer is the toll it takes on loved ones, forcing family members to become caregivers – even though, of course, it is a role they take on willingly and lovingly.
For the past year and a half, Dennis had been active with the grassroots Western Nova Scotia Cancer Support Network group and she served on the steering committee of a cancer care review. So significant was her contribution to that review that on the day Dr. Drew Bethune of Cancer Care Nova Scotia and Health Minister Randy Delorey came to Yarmouth in January to explain the outcome of the review, they made a point of personally visiting Dennis at her home to talk with her as well.
While the review didn’t recommend that a radiation unit be housed at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital, Dennis felt the recommendations and other options the review had come up with will indeed help the lives of those battling cancer. She supported these recommendations and options, and while she didn’t live to see what will be put in place, she was confident that the decisions made were the right ones and that people will be helped.
Even though last year Dennis had planned her funeral – right down to the red and silver urn that will contain her ashes – she always continued to focus on life.
She continued to smile.
She continued to laugh.
She continued to think of others.
“You have been assigned this mountain to climb to show others it can be moved,” was another motivational quote she shared in her August 2018 interview. And then this one: “It’s okay to be scared. Being scared means you’re about to do something really brave.”
Dennis will be remembered for many things and many reasons, her courage included alongside her compassion.
READ MORE ABOUT SANDY:
STATEMENT FROM THE TOWN OF YARMOUTH:
The Town of Yarmouth is deeply saddened as we mourn the passing of Councillor Sandy Dennis. Sandy fought a courageous and inspiring battle with cancer beginning in February of 2017 and today we are reflecting on her life and dedicated service to her community.
“In her time as a councillor, she demonstrated many wonderful character traits that led to success at the council table. Sandy's heart was always with the people she worked for, and her love for the community was consistently reflected in her interactions and decisions,” Mayor Pam Mood said. "Having overcome many challenges in her own life, Sandy possessed great empathy for those in need. She worked tirelessly to help people facing hardships, and her voice on council represented those people at every meeting."
Sandy was first elected to Yarmouth Town Council in 2012 and served on numerous committees. Her passion for Communities in Bloom was a highlight of her time on council and her ability to motivate and bring people together was unique. Sandy had a hands-on approach and it was not uncommon to find her painting spaces or helping with community clean up.
Our sincerest condolences go out at this time to her husband Ken and her entire family. She will be greatly missed by so many people who loved her.