Disclosure: The author of this story is employed by the CBC.
Cancer is a part of Jody Porter’s reality right now. It’s a disease she is currently engaged in a dialogue with — a conversation that’s happening between the thoughts in her mind and the cancer in her body.
At the end of summer 2017, the senior CBC reporter was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and since then has been going through all the emotions – while using whatever energy needed – to navigate the news mid-life.
After more than twenty years reporting on the experiences and challenges faced by people in Canada –in particular those connected to Indigenous communities and the Thunder Bay, Ont. region– Porter is now trying to understand her own story in what has become her single biggest challenge to date.
“I spent the fall pretty much convinced that I was going to die,” Porter says, adding she’s much more optimistic now that she’s made it through a first round of chemotherapy and a second surgery.
“I don’t understand the battle metaphors in terms of cancer because these are my own cells, and they’re the smartest, most adaptive cells. My God, they’re clever. They are immortal and they’re mine. Generally, in our culture we like to frame things militarily. Politics is the battle. Cancer is a battle. It is a dialogue I think I am in. It is not a battle,” Porter said.
On June 21, 2017, Porter was on her way to Kenora, Ont., to file a story on the opening of a new Anishinaabe immersion school. That was when she suddenly felt an unrelenting pain in her abdomen. Porter was alone and forced to drive herself to the emergency room, where doctors told her she had cysts in her abdomen. At first, hospital staff believed they were non-cancerous, but would still need to be removed. A routine procedure, Porter thought. By mid-August she was on the operating table undergoing her first surgery.
“I had the first surgery locally here in Thunder Bay. Came out of it. Woke up, and the surgeon said ‘this is not what we expected, this is cancer and there is a long road ahead.’ It was like someone hit the stop button on the treadmill and I catapulted over the top of it,” Porter said. But, including a false-negative test that said she didn’t have cancer, she would wait more than six weeks for the actual diagnosis.
“I waited and waited and waited and the usual journalistic levers of getting information were of no use to me, which was hurtful,” she said.
“I was in so much denial through the trip to emergency in June, the surgery in August and the weeks and weeks of waiting that it didn’t really hit until I finally got the biopsy results from the oncologist in late-September. I left her office, headed down the hall at the cancer centre and literally walked into a wall, collapsed there in tears, feeling utterly betrayed by my own body.”
Porter’s first segment of chemotherapy would last about six more weeks and then, in December 2017, she underwent a second surgery in Hamilton, Ont.
In between, all the life-changing events meant Porter had to pause her work, handing over her contacts and stories to follow to colleagues. In many ways, Porter was at the forefront of covering indigenous communities in Canada —the diagnosis meant she literally had to drop off the radar. She choose not to make a public statement about the road she faced ahead, saying she struggled with whether or not she should say something on social media. She had a network gig at the CBC offices in Toronto lined up, which she would have to leave on the shelf for now. She also had to temporarily postpone a family trip to Spain, where she was planning to hike the Camino de Santiago trail with her daughter, Madeline as a present to her only child following her recent graduation from Trent University.
“My daughter, I mean. It is one of the hardest things to think of is not being around for my daughter. But she has been an incredible source of strength and inspiration in terms of the things she’s overcome in her day,” Porter’s voice quivering as she speaks.
Since the diagnosis, Porter says, she’s been having an internal conversation about what impact the disease will have on her existence, and how it is shaping her for who she will become. In part, she says it was her dedication to reporting that made her overlook her cancer risk. And, easy to say in retrospect, that she should have been more attune. Her mother is a cancer survivor. She has an aunt who died from the disease.
“Looking at my family history, it is pretty obvious that I would have it. Work is different than personal and you separate the two and I never put it together,” Porter said. “When I was first diagnosed, I was consumed by the question of why I had become ill. Several people had warned me in the last year to take care of myself because I was reporting on so many deaths, so much tragedy. Had I somehow failed at that self-care? Had I experienced a fatal level of exposure to grief? Had I brought this on myself?”
Porter says relief came when she started asking herself a different question: How was she going to get through what she was facing?
In addition to her family, and her own determination, to help her get through it Porter says she’s found herself revisiting the strength and perseverance she’s witnessed from people she’s met and interviewed throughout her career.
“I know people –and have reported on people, especially women, who have met much greater challenges than I am facing and have overcome them,” Porter said. “I think about Judy D’Silva, Grassy Narrows First Nations, who, in a community full of people suffering from chronic disease – like many in Grassy Narrows, D’Silva herself is suffering from mercury poisoning – manages to advocate and continue to be a positive force in the world. Darlene Necan –who fought the ministry of natural resources to have her own home on her own land is just an incredible woman and a well of strength. I think of Claudia Linklater, who was the chief of the First Nations high school in Thunder Bay. The things I have seen people overcome is definitely a source of strength for me.”
Porter says suffering is just a part of life.
“Just thinking about it in the context of those stories I have had the privilege of telling, and people I have had the privilege of meeting, the kind of common through-line is suffering and overcoming and I can work with that,” Porter said.
Throughout the conversation, Porter stresses time and time again how fortunate she is, knowing well that there are others who would not be so able in her situation. “Relatively speaking, I am one of the luckiest cancer patients in Canada. I am fortunate in so many ways and I am certainly not unique in having cancer,” she said.
At Christmas, her daughter and partner – retired police officer Wes Luloff – gifted Porter a black Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, who the breeder had already named Obsidian. She says after reading about the black volcanic glass obsidian, she learned that the rock is said to have healing properties. They decided to keep the name. “So, we call him Sid,” for short, Porter laughed.
There’s a long silence after asking her how she’s surprised herself.
“I think the surprise is yet to come. I think this, in a weird way, has given me an incredible opportunity a lot of people in our business don’t have, and that is the pause. The pause to reflect on what it is we do. Whether it has meaning. Whether it has value. Whether it is a healthy thing to do,” said Porter
“I think the surprise will be: cancer is an opportunity, if you survive it, to be reborn. And I am looking forward to figuring out who I will be. Because I don’t know yet.”
“I think a lot about that.”