I can’t remember exactly what happened to me when he told me. I want to say that my body went numb and I burst into tears, but I actually don’t think that happened. I’m not sure what happened.
I do know what happened the moment before. He came in and sat down and cheerily asked how I was doing. I told him everything was great. Everything was perfect. I was living every actor’s dream. Then he was called away by a nurse. My sister and I looked at each other. “He seems in a good mood. He can’t tell me I have cancer after starting the conversation like that.” Nathenia laughed and said, “Can you imagine?”
Moments later, he came back in, sat down and looked at me. “So there’s no easy way to say this, but…”
February 2017, I had just temporarily relocated to Stratford, Ontario, to be part of one of the largest theatre festivals. Everything was different and I was simultaneously excited and terrified. At the end of that January, I had to have a polypectomy to remove some polyps on my uterine lining that were causing some awful menstruation malfunctions. With that out of the way, I was free to begin my new journey at the festival. Rehearsals began, people were wonderful, I was having a great time and was looking forward to having normal periods.
I feel like something is about to happen.
I wrote those words in my journal just after arriving to Stratford, and about a week after rehearsals started, something did happen. I received a call from a nurse saying I needed to come in for an appointment. I couldn’t because of rehearsals, so she said she’d have the doctor call me. On my break, at a coffee shop, my gynaecologist told me to come in at the end of the month to discuss “treatment options.” The word cancer had slipped in somewhere. Other words I recall are cells, uterus, health, important…
The doctor didn’t even try to calm me down as I started to cry. I knew. He couldn’t actually tell me, but I knew. I hoped and wished it wasn’t true. I bargained with the universe. I even scheduled a date two days after my appointment thinking, the universe can’t give me cancer. I have a date!
Yet, two weeks later, I’m sitting in his office as he’s telling me that they biopsied what they took out in January and found grade two endometrial cancer in my lining. He showed some ultrasounds. He said I’ll have options of treatment or surgery. He said he was fast tracking me to Princess Margaret in two days. He said I’d be in the best hands possible. He said. He said. He said.
I was thirty-five years old.
My sister and I got into a cab. I had to get on a train back to Stratford for rehearsal. I called my best friend, who, always knowing the right thing to say, said, “Well…you know your book is going to be good.”
I knew I couldn’t do treatment. I knew I was going to get the hysterectomy because I just wanted it out. I had to go back to work and I couldn’t do that with chemo. By that measure, I also knew that meant I was never going to give birth to children. I needed to normalize it right away by adding it to lists of impossibilities. I recited it in my head on the train: I will never climb Mount Everest. I will never dance on point. I will never give birth.
I walked from the train station to the Avon theatre: I will never join the army. I will never perform a surgery. I will never be pregnant.
I told the people I needed to tell and tried to hide whatever look was washed over my face. My fight captain came up to me as I held my sword and asked if I was okay. I told her I just got some bad news.
“Are you okay to fight?” she asked.
I looked up at her and tightened my grip, “Oh yeah.” And I meant it.
Two days later, I’m at Princess Margaret with my sister–in the best possible hands I could be in. They give you these iPads with a survey type thing to fill out:
On a scale of 1 to 10, how anxious are you feeling right now?
On a scale of 1 to 10, how depressed are you feeling right now?
I could feel the tears filling my eyes as I looked down at these questions. I had no idea how I was feeling. I didn’t feel anything and I was feeling everything. I was overwhelmed.
We met the doctor who didn’t waste any time telling me that I didn’t actually have a choice. That, in her opinion, I wouldn’t respond to treatment. A total robotic-assisted laparoscopic hysterectomy was the only option. They were taking it all out–ovaries, cervix, all of it. I’m sure she said many other things but just like when my gynaecologist called me, my brain just turned to static. Words didn’t make sense. I relied a lot on my sister to remember things because I just couldn’t retain any of it.
The following month was… I struggle to find the words to describe it because so much happened. One of the worst parts, by far, was telling people. The phone calls, the Skype sessions, the messages–there is no right way of telling your loved ones that you have cancer. I wasn’t allowed to be sad or weepy during these calls. I had to hold it together so they could be sad and weepy. I had to be strong and let them know that it was no big deal. That I was going to be alright. It was a blip. A cancer blip.
Remember that time I had cancer?
Then came the tiresome back-and-forth for appointments from Stratford to Toronto–pre-admission, CT scan, MRI… It felt like a never-ending series of appointments and I am fortunate to have wonderful friends who would offer to drive me to save me from taking the train all the time.
I was set to have the surgery at the end of March and I mentally attempted to prepare myself for it while simultaneously trying to enjoy my time rehearsing with these new friends. Some days were more difficult than others. I tried not to think about it and most times, I was alright because I was so busy. But there were times when…
There’s this Stevie Nicks song called “Sometimes It’s a Bitch” and I’ve always been able to relate to it, but I never related to it more than during this time:
There are days when I swear I could fly like an eagle
And dark desperate hours that nobody sees
My arms stretched triumphant on top of the mountain
My head in my hands, down on my knees
I don’t believe in God, but I did feel betrayed by the universe.
I was set up to spend a week of recovery at my dear friend Cole’s house after the surgery. The day before, I wasn’t allowed to eat anything. I had to drink CoLyte and empty my body. It was gross. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. That drink does not taste like fruit–it tastes awful. I very nearly think it was THE worst part of this whole thing.
My sister stayed with me the whole time. I was poked with needles, hooked up to an IV, and had tubes coming out of me. They allowed me to keep my medicine pouch with me–it stayed next to my head during the surgery.
I was really scared. I mean, I knew that it was most likely going to be fine, but I couldn’t tell my anxiety that. As they were wheeling me away, Nathenia, true to form, pulled out her phone and took selfies with me, which helped put me at ease.
They initially told me it was going to be a day surgery–that unless there were complications, they were going to send me home that same night. I know this surgery isn’t super invasive or massive, but that seemed ridiculous to me.
When I woke up, I was thirsty, I was in pain, and the nurses kept talking about me like I wasn’t there. “We’re keeping her overnight.” This, of course made me panic. I croaked out a “What’s wrong?” And they said there were some problems with one of the incisions but that everything went fine.
I was brought into a room and was joined by my sister and two of my best friends. They brought me food and tried to keep me comfortable, but that first night was difficult. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Going to the bathroom was hard. The first time I sat up, I burst into tears because I felt the pain of my abdomen drop for the first time. My sister stayed overnight, sleeping on a chair so that she could help me. My whole body hurt. We took very slow 3 a.m. walks up and down the hallway to stretch my body.
The first week of recovery was a powerful time in my life. Given my history of depression, I was surprised I was able to stay positive and feel strong the whole time. I had some of my amazing friends visit and make sure I was fed and hydrated and laughing and not bored. The people around me during this time really kept me sane and positive. I don’t know if I could have done it without them.
There was a moment when, walking past the giant mirror in the hallway, I could barely look at myself. I was hunched over, walking as if I were ninety years old. But then there was a moment when the sunlight was falling in just the right spots and I looked at myself and saw someone who was doing what they’ve always done in their life: fight.
Healing didn’t take long. I fully believe the power and energy that I was getting from the folks who love me really boosted me. I was back on stage in five weeks, fighting as a pirate.
It was hard and painful at first, but with physiotherapy and support and my I have to work lest I go insane attitude, I got through it.
During one of my earlier appointments, I decided I wanted to have a traditional ceremony and bury my uterus. I had to fill out a form and weeks later we picked it up from the morgue. I spoke to a medicine woman I knew who gifted me with a ceremony and on April 10, under the full moon, alongside a stream in a cemetery in Stratford, I laid my uterus to rest. There were eight of us–mostly Indigenous–and we each had a responsibility.
That night will live as one of the most beautiful nights in my life. I said goodbye as my friends held their torches up so I could see. They dug the hole. They held the medicine. They drummed and sang a song. They carried the cedar tree that was to be planted on top of it. They took turns watering it. We laid tobacco. They carried my pain and held it for me so I didn’t have to do it myself.
Now there are days I wake up from dreams where I’m pregnant. There are days people still say to me, “Well you can always adopt!” There are days I get frustrated from the hot flashes and dizzy spells brought on by the early onset of menopause. There are days, like recently, where I find out the bad tendinitis that now exists in my knees was brought on by the lack of estrogen. There are days I still mourn the loss of my womb and ability to give life.
I lost more than a body part: I lost a pretty spectacular ability that my body had. I lost the ability of choice. There was a point during this whole thing where I actually said, “I’ve been through worse.” And it’s true. I have. But I’m used to trauma being inflicted upon me. This was trauma from something being taken away.
I’ve been to see what I affectionately call my “Ute Tree” a few times. I lay tobacco. I pick some medicine. I had to do another ceremony where, after a year of grieving, I needed to say goodbye to the spirits of babies I’ll never have. I know. It sounds heartbreaking. And it was. But I have to keep remembering that despite all of this, I’m here. I’m still here and my ability to create life hasn’t completely been taken away. I create life with the stories that I tell. The work that I do creates living, breathing, real people that have the opportunity to create change.
I may not be able to create life within my body, but I am still a creator and that means something.
Yolanda Bonnell is a bisexual/pansexual/queer performer and creator of Ojibwe and South Asian descent. Originally hailing from Fort William First Nation in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Yolanda is now based out of Toronto and was named one of NOWMagazine’s artists to watch in SummerWorks in 2016. Her self-created solo show, bug, directed by Cole Alvis, made its premiere at the 2018 Luminato Festival. She is continuing development of her piece White Girls in Moccasins, while her play Scanner is being developed with Factory Theatre. Performance credits include The Girl/Mother/Manidoons in bug (Luminato Festival), Femi in Cake (TPM/New Harlem), Ipruq/Atugauq in The Breathing Hole (Stratford Festival), Fanny/Roberta inTreasure Island (Stratford Festival), Theresa in The Crackwalker (Factory Theatre), and Roe in Two Indians (SummerWorks 2016).