Lucy Maud Montgomery and Experiences of Cancer

by Christine Chettle

ImageAt the June 2012 L.M. Montgomery and Cultural Memory Conference which I recently attended, a paper (I believe it was Adeline Koscher’s paper on ‘L.M. Montgomery’s Preservation of the New Woman in Cultural Memory’, but a difficulty with reading my own writing inhibits certainty on this point) highlighting the potential for reading L.M.Montgomery’s texts as a sourcebook for contemporary cultural texts made me recall some reflections I’d had a year earlier, when I was doing some Montgomery research at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) in 2011.

After a conversation with a couple of local cancer specialists (Drs. Bill Whelan and Michelle Cottreau), reading about Montgomery’s own experiences with cancer in her selected journals caused her words to stand out in haunting detail.

Her journal entry of on Feb 25th, 1918 recalls a breast cancer scare she had in 1910. This scare was terribly traumatic:

‘There were a couple of weeks that winter in which I tasted all the bitterness of death – and a dreadful and lingering death.  It induced a nervous breakdown to which I made reference in my journal of the time. But I did not explain the cause of it – I could not. The agony had been so awful that for years I could not bear even to think of it.’

Three of my female relations have had encounters with cancer, two of whom did not survive these encounters, so I have good reason to know that any brush with cancer is traumatic. However, we might not suffer some elements of Montgomery’s experience today.

She had little access to reliable information:

‘I got up in the cold and hunted out all the “doctor’s books” in the house and read what they had to say on the subject. I found nothing to encourage me [ . . .] I thought I would go mad with fear and dread. I could say no word to anyone – there was no one I could say anything to.  Sleepless night succeeded sleepless night – agonized day followed agonized day. I could not work – it was impossible to concentrate on anything.’

She had little access to confidential and reliable medical support:

 ‘I could not think of consulting the local doctor. He had a gossipy wife who told everything.  My horrible secret would soon be known everywhere – a thought I could not tolerate.  I could not get to town to consult a doctor there. So, soon after I discovered the kernel, I wrote to the doctor in charge of the medical column in a Montreal paper asking if the kernel were likely to prove a cancer and what I had better do.’

The results of the screening process she was able to achieve relieved her – but this process was far from infallible:

‘Eighteen days later his letter came [ . . .] It was very brief and I remember every line of it – I can never forget it. It shut the gates of death upon my tortured soul and opened the gates of life. “Dear Madam,” it read, “the little kernel in your breast is not a cancer and my advice is to leave it completely alone.” I felt as if I had returned from the grave.  Life was possible once more.’

Now, I am not a medical historian, and I am not entirely certain what conditions in relation to cancer were like across PEI, across Canada and across the world in 1910. (I hope to find out more details in the future.) Other women in other locations presumably had better access to confidential cancer care, but surely many women, like Montgomery, did not. But what Montgomery’s poignant words made me realize was the fact that the very prospect of anyone suffering Montgomery’s particular encounter today may seem unimaginable. In PEI today, people from specialists like Whelan (a cancer researcher) and Cottreau (a quality control officer) down to local doctors ensure that Islanders receive excellent care, while reliable information about cancer is now just a Google search away. The situation is similar in many countries.

But not all countries receive similar standards of care; continuing research everywhere is absolutely essential, as there is still much work to be done on cancer; and there is always a need to ensure that everyone has easy access to adequate health care. 
In PEI, in 2012, ‘an estimated 370 people will die of cancer in Prince Edwards Island, and 890 new cases will be diagnosed.’

As PEI has more that 141000 residents, this is a death rate of less than 0.02 % from cancer. In a global context, however, cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide according to the World Health Organization, which estimates that ‘Cancer [ … ] account[s] for 7.6 million deaths (around 13% of all deaths) in 2008 and that about 70% of all cancer deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries.’ The WHO notes that ‘Deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 13.1 million deaths in 2030’ but that ‘more than 30% of cancers could be cured if detected early and treated adequately. Cancer can be reduced and controlled by implementing evidence-based strategies for cancer prevention, early detection of cancer and management of patients with cancer.’ (WHO, 2012)

Had Montgomery suffered her cancer scare in 2010, rather than 1910, she would have received excellent healthcare, including mammography screening, but other people across the world still suffer from a lack of reliable information, sufficient support, and adequate detection and screening processes. Montgomery’s experience should inspire us to make certain that everyone can access the cancer care they need. 

The quotations are from The Selected Journals of L.M.Montgomery, Vol.2, 1910-1921, ed. by Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 239-241.

You can find out more about Lucy Maud Montgomery and the UPEI archives at the L.M.Montgomery Institute, and more about Montgomery at the Lucy Maud Montgomery Research Centre and at the L.M.Montgomery Research Group.

You can find out more about Dr. Whelan’s research into new methods to treat and monitor prostate cancer here.

You can find out more about global cancer statistics here (and related pages).

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