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Dance, Sing, Hope

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Cancer diagnosis not always a death sentence

Two weeks before Krystal Ralph walked down the aisle, she was told she probably had cancer.

Three months later, doctors confirmed it.

Sitting at her kitchen table, it’s obvious the young mother finds it difficult to talk about her cancer journey, her sentences sometimes disjointed as she distractedly draws her index finger along the grooves lining the table, wiping away non-existent crumbs.

“I left the office and probably cried for a good hour,” she recalls on hearing the initial possibility.

“It was devastating. At that point I didn’t even really know. I wasn’t positive, but something inside of you says there’s something not right. That was my first breakdown.”

Her cancer – adenocarcinoma – came to light following a routine pap test after her first son Carson, now 3, was born.

As the co-chair of the Relay for Life 2013, she’s walked the walk, but still prefers to hover in the background, listening to others tell their stories of survival or tales of valiant struggles lost.

Even after her own three-year journey, Ralph finds it difficult to acknowledge that she is in fact a cancer survivor.

“To me, a survivor is someone that goes through a devastation, that is life threatening, and I never felt like that. I never felt like my lift was threatened.”

Part of her outlook comes from the fact that when she was diagnosed, her husband Travis had an uncle losing his life to several forms of terminal cancers.

Following her wedding, Ralph had her first colposcopy, a diagnostic procedure to examine an illuminated, magnified view of the cervix and the tissues of the vagina and vulva.

The telltale dye turns a certain colour in spots cancer cells are present and they take biopsies of each of those spots.

“The first time I had 19 and, so, not good.”

Following the biopsies, loop electrosurgical excision procedures (LEEP) were done.

“I went through at least six colposcopies and I think three LEEPs.”

While the tests in themselves are “not terrible,” the 25-year-old gives a knowing nod to the havoc they can wreak on a patient’s frame of mind.

Despite it all, Ralph says at no point “Did I ever think, ‘I have cancer; I’m going to die.’ That never, ever crossed my mind.”

Two thoughts did: “If I have to have chemo, am I going to lose my hair? That was just not an option,” she giggled, slightly hesitating before adding, “and then, will I ever have kids again because they said every time that I was going through another procedure, that my chances were going down.

“For me, that wasn’t an option. I was having more kids ... but those are the kinds of things we had to come to terms with.

“I think that was the hardest part for both of us because we had never talked about having just one kid. It was always two maybe three.”

Her treatment saw a piece of her cervix removed.

On Dec. 3, 2011, she was told she was cancer free, but all Ralph heard was that she only had a 25% chance of having another child.

Bucking the odds, Connor came into the world 10 months later. He’s now six months old.

“It was amazing,” smiles Ralph, knowing it’s likely he’s the last child she’ll give birth to. “Connor was a miracle.”

Now, Ralph appreciates that a cancer diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence.

“It means that you’re going to be put through an emotional rollercoaster and be prepared.”

And, she points out, it’s ok to breakdown and not be strong 100% of the time.

“When somebody would say ‘I’m so sorry;’ don’t say you’re sorry because I’m not dead. I‘m alive; I’m well. You have to look at the positives of it. Luckily for me, I had a very slow growing cancer. It was ‘Yeah I have it, (but) the worst thing that’s going to happen to me is I’m going to have no cervix; I’m going to have to get a hysterectomy’ which to me is pretty good because I’m still alive.”

Her advice to others is remain positive.

“I’ve seen so many people as soon as they hear the word cancer, they give up on life. … Dance if that’s what you like doing; just dance wherever you are. Or if you like singing, go sing; whatever your relief is, you need to remain with that.”

And Janice Petruk echoes a similar message of positivity.

“Draw your supports from wherever you can find them. It could be friends; it could be family; it could be co-workers. And you’d be amazed at how many people are willing to help you through this.”

A cancer navigator at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, it’s Petruk who can guide a patient through the myriad of unknowns, providing information.

“Once somebody receives a cancer diagnosis, it’s a huge learning curve. It can be quite devastating and there are lots of decisions that need to be made very quickly.

“It’s always the unknown that’s the scariest. … I am the go-to person if they have questions in regards to treatment and side effects and appointments, and where do I find this kind of help? Where do I find that kind of help? I am the one person they can call who can direct them.”

Patients can visit Petruk with or without a physician’s referral.

“I also give them some emotional support in allowing them to come in and cry if they need to. I am willing to speak to family members if they feel they need the support. It’s a very open appointment and it’s geared towards the needs of the patient.”

While some would see Petruk’s position as emotionally draining, she shakes her head and talks outlook.

“I see it as a way of helping them struggle through a really difficult time so it’s something very positive that I can offer them. I see it as something active. We’re actually doing something for them as opposed to just letting them struggle through the difficult time by themselves.”

This year’s Relay for Life is to be held June 7 in Thickwood. For more info, visit
To contact Petruk, call 780-788-1751.

Photos, first to last:

  1. Mom and Connor share a giggle
  2. Krystal cuddles her boys while Carson ‘reads’ them a story
  3. Carson, 3, and Connor, 6 months, hang out together
  4. Carson gives his younger brother Connor, 6 months, a big smooch
  5. Cancer patient navigator Janice Petruk.

One of those people who arrived in Fort McMurray for a short time – six months - but eight years later is still here. Love this place, the people, the outdoor escapades and the incredible heart of the community. Work hard, volunteer lots and would rather sit and chat with someone than do housework. Passport always at the ready to jet off to some wonderful global locale. So much to see and do.