Ordinary Is as Ordinary Does – On Lance and Cancer

“Real is on the rise, F*#k them other guys” – Drake

My Mom and Dad in Halifax moments before starting to bike across Canada

My Mom and Dad in Halifax moments before starting their bike journey across Canada

Don’t worry, I’m not about to throw in my 2 cents on biking or doping. Far better people have already flogged the subject to death. I do, however, have something to say about cancer.

I stopped giving a shit about Lance Armstrong in 2008. While Strachan was sick, I worked with the Cedars Cancer Institute. They are a remarkable group who support patients, research and facilities in Montreal. Executive Director Jeff Shamie – a fantastic ordinary person in his own right -had his sights set on Lance since he started.

He succeeded and Lance has partnered with Cedars since 2008. For a weekend each year, they have invited people to ride, dine and paddle with him.  All told, Cedars has used Lance fever to help raise over $8 million for legitimate cancer causes.

I balked at his appearance fee. Out of respect for Cedars I won’t reveal it. It’s worth it as they have successfully leveraged it to raise much more.  But I cringed that someone would use cancer to maximize his own marketing potential, make millions off of it and then masquerade as a hero while pocketing hard earned fundraising dollars from star struck average joes.

I barfed in my mouth a bit when he demanded a list of pre-approved people he would meet. I lost interest completely when he showed up with bodyguards to keep cancer survivors, family members, medical practitioners and volunteers away. Go ahead and keep me off your list Lance, permanently.

My real biking hero -Lala.  On the same day Lance got paid an appearance fee to ride 109km around Cape Town and fly off in his private jet before the race was over. Lala did it to raise awareness for Hoops 4 Hope on 100 lb mountain bike with a busted seat post and bball hoop attached to the bike.

My real biking hero -Lala. On the same day Lance rode 109km around Cape Town then flew off in his private jet. Lala did it to raise awareness for Hoops 4 Hope on a100 lb mountain bike with a busted seat post and bball hoop attached.

I understand that we need heroes, but Lance has done as much for cancer patients as the Kardashians have for young girls. He believed the hype and acted better than other people and the disease.

Lance didn’t defy odds, he got lucky. By allowing the world to believe he conquered cancer like he did the Tour de France, he reinforced a dangerous message. Millions die of cancer every year (7.6 in 2008). If you are among them, is it because you failed to conquer?

My brother fought cancer for 21 months before he passed. He didn’t fail at anything. He woke up every single one of those mornings and faced it like a warrior. His wife did too. I don’t expect to see anything so inspiring again and have never, ever been more proud to be his sister.

When diagnosed with cancer, you are told immediately that attitude is half the battle. We put our gloves on. If this needed character, we had it. If he himself needed an off-day, the rest of us had the will to make up for it. We even took his B positive blood type as a message.

My only regret through Strachan’s illness was not encouraging him to contemplate his mortality. I was too scared that talking about it meant giving up and too busy cheerleading to know if he did too. I’m sorry if he had to protect us from a hard process or deal with it on his own. I’m even more sorry if he ever felt like a failure for it.

Death and disease should humble the very strongest among us. So on behalf of someone who lost the best person I know to cancer, you’re a dick Lance.

For the people who feel like they lost a cancer hero in Lance, there are so many better ones out there. Here’s just a few:

My Dad (in a unitard), Todd and Stu during the Make a Difference marathon  in a cycling unitard at the exact spot Terry Fox ended his Marathon of Hope

My Dad (in a unitard), Todd and Stu during the Make a Difference marathon in at the exact spot Terry Fox ended his Marathon of Hope

Terry Fox, the real Canadian hero, ran a marathon a day across Canada on one leg, the other amputated due to bone cancer. He wore tattered sneakers, had a one-man support team and a fruit-sized tumor in his lung. I had to explain him at University in the USA – “He didn’t make it?” Nope, he died half way. His foundation has raised $600 million for cancer since.  Strachan ran the Terry Fox run the week he re-lapsed with a football sized tumor in his chest.  We run it every year.

Lynny with her 4 girls at Tasha's (turquoise dress) wedding. Her Dad wasn't there to walk her down the aisle but they figured out how to miss him and have fun all at once.

Lynny with her 4 girls at Tasha’s (in turquoise) wedding. Her Dad wasn’t there to walk down the aisle. They missed him but had fun too.

Dr. Norm Saunders, legendary Toronto pediatrician, father of 4 and husband to my favorite Granny was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer at 55 and given 6 months to live. Afterwards, he fought the government to provide patients with a life-extending drug, on principal.  He could afford to pay for it, but others couldn’t. He won. He also raised $1.4 million for children with complex illnesses before he passed away at 60.

Gwen (left) on stage at a cancer summit with Lance (right). Time to pass the mic.

Gwen (left) on stage at a cancer summit with Lance (right). Time to pass the mic I say.


Gwen Nacos, my friend and mentor, was diagnosed with stage 4 bladder cancer while pregnant and given a 10% chance. 29 years later, she is a business dynamo, wears fur and drinks designer coffee.  She founded Cedars CanSupport, has raised at least $15 million and puts in 40 hours a week to fight like a (highly organized and effective) pit bull for the cause. I met her following a gratuitous introduction about how she survived cancer, she looked me in the eye and said ‘forget that nonsense, it’s dumb luck’.

My parents, who lived out their worst fear and are left to face the emptiness daily. The struggle to find new meaning is relentless. They do it anyways, because they’re still here. Or the chubby guy down the street who you have never noticed. He underwent chemotherapy 10 years ago, sings out of tune, never misses his kid’s soccer games and defies doctor’s orders by eating a bit too much steak because he loves it. He now knows what life is really about. It ain’t the Tour de France.

Emily Brydon – Speed Queen

“Gravity, stay the hell away from me.”  John Mayer

Name – Emily Brydon
Home Town – Fernie BC, now London
Occupation – BP Future Leader.
Awesome – Check
Hilarious – That too
Looks – Great
Jealous – Maybe if she wasn’t so likable.
Single – You bet (I accept agent fees)

I met Emily as a teenager. We grew up ski racing and were teammates on the BC Team a long, long time ago. While I worked my way up to housewife in Port Elizabeth, she went on to become one of Canada’s all-time greatest skiers: 14 year National Team member, 3 time Olympian, World Cup winner and 10 time National Champion. Since training and competing at that level only took up 120 hours a week 11.5 months of the year, she started a Foundation that provides sports to kids in her home town, became a Right to Play Ambassador and sat on the Alpine Canada Board. When she retired in 2010, they declared May 12 Emily Brydon Day in Fernie.

No biggie.

Emily prettyRetiring from elite athletics is a tough transition. You’re 30 years old, moving out of the spotlight and away from the only highly structured reality you have ever known. You give up your support team and have to make up for the education and work experience you sacrificed to represent your country. It’s tough. A real grind. Takes years to find yourself.

Two years out, Emily has completed her MBA at Imperial College and is living in downtown London working as an Operations Manager for BP. Yep, the ‘real world’ is harsh.  Luckily she worked at Second Cup one summer so she had some work experience on her resume.

Emily, Mom and Toots Delich

Emily, Mom and Toots Delich

Like anybody with such a fantastic story, the route wasn’t paved with glitter. Emily is 6 feet tall and pushing 200 lbs. She carries it like a rock star and skiing is a gravity sport for shit’s sake. But she was full grown at 15. In addition to full-piece spandex, ski racing involves a lot of dough. It is expensive and reserved mostly for wealthy people with weekend mountain homes. Emily lived at the base of the ski hill in a handmade log cabin in Fernie, population 5000. Her Dad was a snowcat driver and Mom a lift operator.

In case I could be mistaken for a Mean Girl – I was 5’3, 150 lbs and squatting 300 lbs. I wore a 1970s red hand-me-down helmet, skied for the lowly city mountain and had a mono-brow to boot.  Sport saved me in the end, but not before dragging me through some seriously awkward teenage years. I may or may not be projecting these insecurities onto Emily, I never heard her complain.  But I know the world we lived in and it couldn’t have been easy to be the big girl from the small town.

At 18, she lost her father to cancer, leaving her alone with her Mom.  Rosemarie is also 6 foot awesome and spirited. She resolutely “chose life”, first when diagnosed with lupus and again when she lost her husband. But skiing became hard to afford. Fernie stepped in and paid it forward.

Emily skiAll this makes it even easier to root for her. Not only was she the ‘underdog’ in a harsh and competitive world, but she has stayed utterly genuine throughout. She has blossomed into a confident and charismatic woman with an unmistakable ‘joie de vivre’ and kick ass sense of humor, but remains a humble small-town girl at heart.

She’s also got huge balls and the tenacity of a dog on a bone. I mentioned the MBA from one of the world’s most prestigious business schools. I left out that she never met the entrance requirements. You need an undergraduate degree.  But she had already decided to live in London and wasn’t about to settle for a second rate program, so she knocked on their door and asked them to make an exception. It took 14 months, multiple GMAT attempts and several undergraduate courses as a ‘mature’ student among teenagers.

Some BC skiers. Apparently I’m a midget

Similarly, when it came to the job search, BP came looking for Engineers and IT specialists for their highly competitive Future Leaders program. She marched up to the recruiter and asked what they have to offer someone like her, who is neither nor. Within a month she had secured herself 1 of 25 (from 7000 applicants) spots and was interviewing them to decide what department she wanted to work for. She chose lubricants.

She was, however, cautious that they hired her for the right reasons (they did). She moved across the world to become anonymous. She wanted to grow in new areas and add real value, not be the girl in the office that went to the Olympics.

While sitting at brunch recently, it was impossible not to comment on her guts and wish they were my own.  She answers with a shrug, “after you disappoint your whole country, there’s not much left to lose”.

Emily’s final ski season included her 3rd Olympics in Vancouver. Her home turf and hot on the heels of some brilliant results, she carried the hopes of the country as a medal contender.  A less than perfect week was reported by the media as a disaster and by Emily herself as “heart-breaking and crushing”.

Emily and Rosemarie on Emily Brydon Day

With Rosemarie on Emily Brydon Day

Like a proper over-achiever, the disappointment was actually her own – she felt she had let people down. Canada was over it by the first beer at the Nickelback concert. The Olympics were exceptional and they got their best medal haul ever. A top 20 result hardly merits an apology. Canada still loves Emily.

I notice that she now uses this ‘failure’ to gather courage. To summon the VP of a huge company, she doesn’t draw upon all that it took to get up every morning and hurl herself down a mountain at 120 km/hour with only lycra protecting her. Or what went in to recovering from injury or conquering fears to become the best in the world.

In the spirit of this blog, knowing that a World Champion with a day named after her has vulnerabilities is the best kind of ordinary. It means the rest of us can relate. Beneath the powerhouse exterior, she has doubts that she must face just like everyone else. The difference, perhaps, is that she actually does.

I most definitely look forward to whatever comes next from this small town girl.

Ordinary People Doing Ordinary Things

Proof of smoking-hot lawyer

A friend recently asked me if I’m ever overwhelmed by the people we know. He even threw a ‘like seriously’ in. Let it be noted that he is a (single) smoking-hot, thoughtful, basketball-playing Ugandan lawyer who has lived alone since the age of 9 in 3 different countries. I nodded like a particularly loose bobble-head. “All the time.”

I have known for awhile now that the best thing about me is the people I know.  I claim regularly that beauty, brains and humor are by association and that surely you are a reflection of the company that you keep. Therefore, I’m awesome.

The title is a delightful accident (ordinarypeople was already taken). Ubuntu is a classical African worldview that translates in isiXhosa loosely to ‘humanity’ or ‘I am what I am because of who we are.’

According to our very own Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008:

“Ubuntu – the essence of being human, speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being all by yourself. It speaks about our interconnectedness. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. “

So there you go, I was right. As usual.

It is time to start telling their stories. Individually each is extraordinary, mostly due to their livability. Collectively, well we’ll just have to see. Selfishly, they chronicle the places I have been and the very best of what I know. If nothing else, I would like to leave that legacy for my daughter. I also hope to improve my story-telling ability through practice.

Since I plan to get way better at this, I will start with the most obviously impressive, therefore easiest, person. I hope you are enraptured by her enough to stick around.  If you do, it is likely because you know me. In which case you are ordinary; also liable to pop up in this space.

Gran: Ubukulu abubangwa (one does not become great by claiming greatness)

“Happy now”  – Gran upon meeting her great grand-daughter Khaya, Dec 2012.

First name: unknown
Surname: Zauka
Clan name: Qhinebe
Birthdate: Unknown (we think about 80 years ago)
Hometown: Lusikisiki, Transkei, South Africa
Occupation: Pillar of the Earth

I went through much of my life thinking men had it figured out. Women complicated things, men kept it simple. I liked that. Then I learned that it was life itself that was complicated. Women are just more likely to step up to it. They show up. Sure they will fight against you, but they will also fight for you. There is proof all over the place so I won’t waste anymore time belaboring the obvious – women hold up the world.

If you are a liberal, romantic or anyone who watches Oprah, you hope to meet people like Gran. Perhaps even more so given the vagueness of her life details. We don’t know how old she is, where she was born or how many children she has raised . We don’t even know her name. She goes, affectionately by MaQhinebe, translated to mother of her clan. She lives in the rural Transkei- a former black ‘homeland’, the poorest part of South Africa and an epicenter of AIDS and unemployment. She has endured colonialism, mass migration, apartheid and, now, democracy. She doesn’t speak English, has no running water or salary, but makes her own beer, ploughs her own land and feeds a house full of other people’s kids. She raised 2 doctors from no thing, lost 6 out of 7 of her own children and has watched a generation vanish to disease and violence. When they brought electricity to the village in the early 2000s, she complained the lights were keeping the cows awake.

Gran and Mpho

I go Home to her annually. My husband’s belly button is buried there (officially making it Home). As is his mother, brother, uncle and father. Mpho’s mom, Noxolo, was dropped off on the doorstep as an infant by a distant relative. As she does, Gran picked her up and made her her own. Under her guidance, Noxolo grew up to be a mighty woman – a courageous and tenacious visionary willing to fight for what is right and for those she loved. She died in a bed in the middle bedroom from a sudden bout of pneumonia. When we arrive, Mpho slows into 2nd gear and blasts traditional maskandi music from his car stereo. He knows where he comes from.

Gran and Khaya

I love Gran. She has been wholly generous to me and my family. Her presence makes you know greatness is among you. I love what it means to Mpho to go Home and how I catch him secretly smiling to himself while staring into the rolling hills. I love that this history and character are parts of our lives and pulse through Khaya’s veins.

According to culture, as a bride, I must show my worth by how hard I work around the house. I’m supposed to gather, cook and clean until my back hurts. Instead I get lost in translation and patronization. I don’t quite understand what is expected of me, nonetheless my way around a freshly slaughtered sheep. Add centuries of screwed up race relations, my 30% Xhosa vocabulary and the gulping sound I make while trying to stomach (purposely) soured milk and you get both old and young asking me if I need a rest after making a cup of tea.

This last trip, Gran came in one morning carrying 5 bags of chips and 2 bananas on a plate. For breakfast. I’m mortified by the image of my gluttonous self in her eyes, alone in a room 5000 calories deep into junk food (that we brought for the kids) instead of fermented porridge handmade by her. Equally so by the notion that she thinks I want it served to me while everyone else eats outside.

at weddingWe often patronize poverty. It makes it easier to stomach if the poor are content in simple joys or they haven’t seen enough to know any better. Gran has lived her whole life working hardcore manual labour in Lusikisiki. Poverty, death and illness have lived there all along. But don’t ever mistake her for someone who doesn’t know the difference.

Poverty, by rule, is short-sighted. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that without the basics of food, shelter and safety we are unable to truly experience love or self-actualization. Yet Gran gives everything and asks for nothing. Mpho offered her anything in the world for Christmas; she asked for tripe.  In a culture where the elders are meant to be cared for by their young, she just took in 2 needy children.


There are 80(ish) years of the hardest earned wisdom in those bones. She has seen more than I ever will and carries a burden that would crush anyone I know. Her decision to wake up each day and choose optimism and the greater good is at least as difficult as it would be for anybody else who has suffered loss, including those of us living behind white picket fences. Gran is a hero for many reasons, but her willingness to endure is truly remarkable.

I speculate that what makes it possible is perhaps the only thing that is truly sweet about poverty – the number of women bearing the same burden with equal grace. You see, Gran’s sister lives next door.  Yet another octogenarian widow who looks out her window at the graves of her own children while raising a house full of someone else’s.  Up at 4am to chase the chickens but the first to dance over with a beaming smile when we pull up in our dusty car. I sometimes wonder if they stay brave in part for one another –  purposefully making it hard to be the odd one out.

No offence to the great guys out there, but I suspect this blog may end up being about a whole lot of women.