Tiffany Morin: discovering community in Wellspring’s Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle
Crafting Hope Amidst Uncertainty
Last December, when Tiffany Morin joined a drum-making workshop, she crafted her drum handle in a Cree style that embodied her unwavering determination to reclaim her future.
“I chose to use elk hide, which, on the Medicine Wheel symbolizes the East direction … a new beginning … a way of being hopeful, I guess,” she said, proudly holding up her drum and turning it over to reveal its beautifully woven handle.
“As I was lacing the elk hide to the cedar frame, I was thinking about all the community connections I have in my life … feeling overwhelmed with gratitude for all the support I have received.”
Tiffany was living her best life; eyes trained on a bright future that included vibrant friendships, community involvement, volunteering, and aiming to teach in her chosen profession of recreation therapy; when, four days before starting grad school, she was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was just so shocking. All my blood work had been fine. There was just this small mass on my ovary that my gynecologist thought was benign. She said we could keep watching it, or I could have it removed laparoscopically,” said Tiffany. She chose the latter, never dreaming that at age 38, she’d hear the words, “You have ovarian cancer.”
In the days that followed, Tiffany deferred her entrance to the master’s program in Community Health Sciences at the University of Calgary and found herself at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre, where her newly appointed oncology team ran tests and opted to perform a second debulking surgery to ensure the mass was fully removed and to test the surrounding areas.
Six months later, tests showed Tiffany was in the clear, and just like that, she was referred back to her gynecologist for twice-yearly checkups that would include blood work and ultrasounds.
“I was elated! Back to living my best self!” She said, highlighting a special trip she took with her partner, spending time with friends, hiking, music festivals … all the good stuff.
Tiffany went back to her long-time job as a recreation therapist at the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre in Calgary, and in the Fall of 2019, she resumed her quest for her master’s degree.
In January 2022, while preparing to defend her thesis, Tiffany went for her six-month checkup, and when the pelvic ultrasound was taking longer than usual, she had a feeling that the cancer was back.
“It was so weird, I had absolutely no symptoms, I felt fine. I was happy and excited about finishing school,” she said.
But more tests and scans revealed new tumors throughout her abdomen, hence, four years after her first cancer diagnosis, Tiffany was back in her oncologist’s office. This time she asked more questions and she doubled down on her support networks.
“I learned that only two- to four- percent of women have this type of ovarian cancer. I found a Facebook group – not a big group, but a strong group of women from all over the world who have this cancer,” she said. “There was comfort in knowing that lots have survived – many living well for 30 or 40 years.”
In March of 2022, Tiffany underwent major surgery to remove all tumours and perform a hysterectomy. After some recovery time in hospital, she learned that chemotherapy would follow, hence she was once again forced to take medical leave from her job and delay her studies.
“My first chemo treatment was really rough. I had a severe anaphylactic reaction to one of the drugs. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever been through,” she said. In the aftermath Tiffany ended up at Emergency with dehydration, diarrhea, vomiting and a full body rash.
When the allergic reaction during her second round of chemo was worse than the first, Tiffany turned to her Facebook group for input on their experiences, and learned that there is a chemotherapy drug that is costly and not easily accessible, but most women tolerate it better than other drugs. She went to her oncology team with a request to try the alternative drug, and after an extensive approval process, her request was granted.
“I tolerated this chemo so much better. Don’t get me wrong – it still came with all the side effects – hair loss, intense pain, neuropathy, nausea, but I got through it,” she said.
Wellspring and Other Communities of Support
It was during chemo that Tiffany learned about Wellspring and decided to sign up for some programs.
“This community became one of many that was very important to me during this difficult time. I enjoyed qigong, creative journaling, and a mindfulness program that I loved so much – it was such a great help in getting me through my chemo treatments,” she said.
Tiffany also joined Wellspring’s Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle, a program connecting Indigenous cancer patients and caregivers in a monthly session co-led by an Elder. Being Métis and Cree, she found solace in the rituals and practices shared in the group.
“I really like the Indigenous Cancer Sharing Circle – I try to make it every month. I am so grateful to meet others who approach things in a bit of a different way … for example ceremonies, traditions, reference to ‘source’ … I feel comfortable in this group,” said Tiffany, adding that she also meets with an Indigenous connection circle through the University of Calgary.
Tiffany has also connected with Elder Doreen Spence, who she met through the university. She deeply values her relationship with “Grandmother Doreen” and she attends her sweat lodge near Bragg Creek. “She’s a force! She’s a remarkable activist for Indigenous people, and she got the Order of Canada last year. I’m so lucky to know her,” said Tiffany.
Invariably, Tiffany echoes the importance of weaving communities of support in all aspects of her life.
“I have a lot of good people in my life who help sustain me. I couldn’t do all that I do without them,” she said, tearing up. “My family, friends, my Indigenous groups, Wellspring, Ovarian Cancer Canada, Facebook groups, workmates, my school community … these connections keep me going,” she said.
Master’s Degree with a Special Honour
In January 2023, Tiffany gladly returned to school, and in April she successfully defended her thesis. At her convocation at the end of May, she received her Master of Science degree and at a special UCalgary Indigenous convocation in June, she received a special surprise – the Dr. Olive Dickason Award.
This special honour is awarded to an Indigenous student who met the challenges of adversity and overcame overwhelming circumstances to graduate. Tiffany was both deserving and deeply moved.
“I’m just so grateful for all the good things that have happened to me. I try to reach out to others to help them see that it can be okay, living with cancer. I’ve had so many meaningful moments – so many amazing people – such a strong community of kindness and support,” she said.
Today is a new day, and while her oncologist is keeping a watchful eye on another small cluster of tumours in her abdomen, Tiffany is moving forward with hope and optimism.
“This time last year, I could barely walk. This year, I attended Stampede, signed up to volunteer again at the Calgary and Canmore Folk Festivals, and one of these days I’ll get back to some backcountry hiking,” she said.
With the East direction on the Medicine Wheel holding steady in focus, Tiffany keeps right on rising.
“It’s been quite a journey, but I’m young, I’m strong, I’m pretty healthy, I’m active, and so many good things have happened. I’m choosing to be hopeful,” she said.
The real kicker is the offer she accepted for a new job teaching Recreation Therapy at University of Lethbridge.
“I started in July and I’m really excited to work with students this fall. This was a dream of mine… now it’s happening!” she said.