By Raf Brusilow
For 12 years, Ryerson theatre instructor Marianne McIsaac’s annual mammogram results came up safe–even though for eight of those years, a tumour had unknowingly been growing inside her left breast.
Last November, the chilling truth became apparent. “You have cancer, and we have to remove your breast immediately,” she was told by her doctor. McIsaac’s energy, wit and sense of humour have been staples at Ryerson during her 10-year teaching career. She was shocked to hear she had breast cancer.
“There was no lump and I was never sick. I’m really healthy, I feel great,” she said. Early in November, McIsaac, 52, went for her routine mammogram.
The test turned up negative, but her family doctor had a hunch something was wrong. “She thought, ‘Something doesn’t feel right,'” McIsaac said. The doctor sent McIsaac to a surgeon, who in turn recommended a biopsy (a removal of sample tissue). The biopsy results were undeniable. “Every one of these biopsies is cancerous,” McIsaac was told.
Following her diagnosis, McIsaac had her left breast removed on Dec. 10 at York Central Hospital in Richmond Hill. A month later, surgeons removed 14 lymph nodes from under her left arm.
While most Ryerson students look forward to a restful break during reading week, McIsaac will be bracing herself for a much different experience: chemotherapy. “I’m starting chemo in two weeks and I might be stuck for six months with my head in a toilet. I’m just dreading it,” she said.
Starting Feb. 23, McIsaac will undergo a program of potent drug cocktails to kill cancerous cells in her body. Unfortunately, the drugs also kill other rapidly dividing cells, causing hair loss, frequent fatigue and nausea. At first, McIsaac felt uneasy about letting her students know about her cancer. “What if they asked me, ‘how are you?’ What could I answer? ‘I dunno, I’m fuckin’ dying maybe?”
Nevertheless she decided to warn students early in the new year, before they started seeing the side effects of her treatment. Their responses were overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve received so many lovely thoughts and words from people–it really lifts your spirits,” McIsaac said. “She’s one of the most professional, self-disciplined, brilliant teachers of acting I know,” said Perry Schneiderman, chair of the theatre school and a friend of McIsaac’s.
He’s not surprised McIsaac plans to keep teaching during her cancer treatment. “You draw energy from the work. She’s a shining example of that,” he said.
“She’s a great teacher–she just has so much energy. She’s very real,” said Samantha Pink, a third-year student of McIsaac’s. For McIsaac, the decision to keep working during therapy is simple–she loves teaching.
“When you’re facing something really horrible, it’s nice to do something you like to do. I’m (teaching) because I enjoy it,” she said.