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Finding Peace in the Unknown

  June 1, 2024

It’s not just the sun shining in through the windows behind Mallory Chamberlain that gives her a bright disposition. Sitting in what she calls “the shack,” her home on the beach in Port Stanley, Ont., Mallory (or Mal, as she’s known to those close to her) smiles as she talks about how fortunate she is.

Diagnosed with a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma tumour in early 2023, Mal is on a leave of absence from her job as a teacher at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in London, Ont. Her fiancé, Nick, is a firefighter and her retired parents, Doug and Lori, live only a kilometre away, so she has a strong support system nearby.

“It’s been an ever-changing journey,” Mal says. “But I feel like this was meant to happen and I’m going to beat it.”.

Discovering the cause of her pain

Mal ChamberlainMal, now 28 years old, started experiencing headaches in elementary school. Doctors brushed them off as chronic migraines, which ran in Mal’s family. Come university, the pain became constant, with what Mal describes as “wavering intensity.”

She’d been attending the University of Guelph, where she was, ironically, studying the brain.

“I became very curious about what was going on in my head,” Mal says.

She met with a neurologist who, again, told her she was simply experiencing migraines.

“I feel like it got missed because it was just like, ‘Your family has headaches,’ and I’ve never been a good advocate for my own health,” Mal says. “I always thought, ‘I’m fine.’”

Mal tried a myriad of medications and even Botox to help with the pain. Looking back, she can only wish she’d been referred for an MRI while she was in university.

She continued to live with the pain as she moved into her teaching career. She recalls hosting a junior girls’ volleyball tournament at her school and, less than 48 hours later, having her first seizure.

Following an emergency room visit and a CT scan, Mal was told she had a brain tumour. Originally, it was diagnosed as a grade 2 oligodendroglioma and then re-diagnosed as a grade 3 anaplastic astrocytoma, following her surgery. Due to the location of the tumour, only 15 per cent was able to be removed.

“The first question my oncologist asked me was if I wanted to hear my prognosis,’” Mal says. “I instantly responded with, ‘No.’”

“I knew if I wanted to beat this disease, I needed to focus on overcoming it, not having my life expectancy impacted by it.”

Battling back

Mal and her loved ones have been determined for her to overcome her tumour ever since. While Mal has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy, she’s chosen to take a break as she looks to integrative and metabolic cancer approaches.

“It’s certainly been an ever-changing process, full of lots of twists and turns, but I have learned that there is so much to know beyond mainstream care,” Mal says. “Following mainstream cancer care alone is like thinking Netflix is the only source of TV shows or movies that exists.”

In addition to using supplements and medications prescribed by integrative cancer doctors, Mal travels to Toronto twice a week to undergo dichloroacetate (DCA) and ozone therapy. DCA, an off-label drug, is administered intravenously, while her blood is cycled with ozone gas. The entire process requires four IVs and takes about four hours.

She is also micro-dosing prescription cannabis for symptom, cancer, and seizure management, which she believes is also helped by following a keto diet.

“I’ll come home and Nick will say, ‘I just made these keto muffins,’ or, ‘There’s soup for you in the fridge,’ or, ‘I just picked up this fresh food from the farm,’” Mal says. “He does everything. And yet, he doesn’t get stressed out doing it. He’s a very calm person, which balances me out as I feel like I’m very high strung.”

A strong support system

Mal ChamberlainMal and Nick complement each other in many ways, particularly when it comes to their health.

“Nick exercises more consistently than anyone I’ve ever met,” Mal says. “Even when he doesn’t feel like it, he ties up his running shoes and heads out the door.”

They’ve both cut out alcohol for health reasons, too, except for the odd drink on a special occasion.

“I feel so grateful that my fiancé has shown up for me in every way possible, helping me to navigate this disease from all angles,” Mal says.

So much so, that he chose to propose to Mal at an event that holds special meaning for her—the 2023 Brain Tumour Walk in London, Ont.

Mal was eight months into her diagnosis when she took the stage, speaking of her journey with a brain tumour. Following her speech, Nick dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him.

“It’s funny because neither of us love a lot of attention,” Mal says, “and if it wasn’t for this event, we would never have done something so big like that. But after it happened, it felt right. And the fact that the people who are most important to me were there watching, made it a pretty unforgettable experience.”

Those spectators included Mal’s closest friends, who organized a team, Mal Chamberlain’s #1 Fans, in her honour. Together, they raised a whopping $46,250 and earned the 2023 team Cup of Hope.

“They set up this team without telling me,” Mal says, “and I had no idea where it was going to go. I give my sincerest thank you to everyone who donated or attended the Walk. I often think back to the sea of people in yellow, rooting me on at the Walk, and it never fails to bring a smile to my face.”

Mal’s parents have also rallied behind her, with her mom digging into the research side of things and her dad managing the financial side. They’ve been through a lot as a family, first with the sudden loss of Mal’s brother, Denver, followed by news of Mal’s brain tumour.

“All of their energy is put into helping me get through this,” Mal says.

Perspective is everything

Mal ChamberlainOf losing her brother, Mal says she’s found perspective in her grief.

“This difficult loss continues to remind me that life is too short and unpredictable not to find peace in the chaos, gratitude in the setbacks, and authenticity in the journey,” she says.

She copes by taking what she calls “mindful walks,” where she listens to music, podcasts, or walking meditations.

“Finding peace in the unknown has been an ongoing practice for me,” Mal says. “It’s hard not to constantly be thinking about my next best move, so staying present helps me remain grounded amongst all the chaos.”

She and Nick have started doing puzzles together as a way to connect and keep busy with anything not related to cancer. Mal also enjoys writing, doing crafts, playing games with friends, and organizing (“Perhaps too much, my friends and fiancé might say,” Mal comments). Although, it can certainly be difficult to “turn off the cancer button” and focus on life outside of the diagnosis, says Mal.

Looking ahead

Mal looks forward to the day that her cancer is a distant memory, and she can get back to the active life she enjoys. At the top of her list are running, playing intramural sports with her friends, skiing/snowboarding, and taking part in Spikeball battles on the beach (“Where the cancer patient wins, of course!” she jokes).

“I love spending time moving my body and getting outside,” says Mal, a sports fan who grew up competing in gymnastics and cheerleading. One of her favorite memories is training at Toronto School of Circus Arts while in university.

“It was a lot of fun to push myself and try something different,” Mal says.

Along with challenging herself physically, Mal is eager to take the next step forward in her life.

“I’m looking forward to returning to teaching, getting married, and starting a family with my incredible partner,” she says. “Further, and I don’t know how, but I will be using my experience with cancer to help others fight this disease.”

Living with hope

Mal ChamberlainGiving back is important to Mal, who met her fiancé while tree planting in Northern Ontario. Before her teaching days at her current school, she worked as a tree planter with Outland Reforestation, planting more than half a million trees throughout Ontario, Quebec and Alberta.

She was also involved with Outland’s Youth Employment Program (OYEP), which provides land-based education, training and work opportunities for high school-aged Indigenous youth. Mal helped to prep during the off season and worked as a camp supervisor and teacher during the six-week summer camps.

Her focus is now on supporting those in the brain tumour community, having found support herself through Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada.

“The Foundation has helped connect me with fellow cancer fighters, providing me with encouragement, a sense of community, and the opportunity to learn from the journey of others,” Mal says. “Most important, BTFC has offered hope to so many cancer patients across the country, and ‘to live without hope is to cease to live.’”

This quote from novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky is one Mal holds close to her heart, though she has her own sage words of advice for those going through their own difficult situations: “Fellow cancer patients, our ability is stronger than our disability,” she says. “We’ve got this. The water is rough, but together, we shall ride the waves.”

She’s doing just that, with the community she’s found throughout her journey. Her Instagram account has provided a platform for her to share the good, the bad, and everything in between, while connecting her with others who are walking a similar path. Though it’s only a snapshot of her life, it shows how Mal has embraced what life has thrown at her.

“In the face of adversity, my diagnosis has taught me to ask myself, ‘What am I supposed to learn here?’ rather than focusing on the hardship, or things I can’t control,” she says.

An inspired life

Mal ChamberlainHer favourite sayings reflect her mindset.

“I often reference Eckhart Tolle’s impactful words, ‘I’d rather be here now,’ or, ‘Become comfortable without knowing,’” Mal says.

“Navigating cancer is a question mark that never goes away, and cancer or not, we will never have all the answers in life—so, it’s a good thing we’re not writing an exam!”

Perhaps even before she understood the meaning, she’s been drawn to the song 100 Years by Five for Fighting. She recalls running around at her cottage as a kid and listening to this tune, which highlights the importance of enjoying every moment for what it is—something that resonates with her even more today.

“Time is a gift, and cancer certainly does a good job at reminding me of that,” Mal says. “Finding peace in the unknown has been an ongoing practice for me. As a cancer patient, it is easy to feel like a victim, but I continue to remind myself that although I can’t always choose what I’m showing up to, I can choose how I show up.”

Follow along with Mal’s journey on her Instagram account, @braincancer.journey.