A brave woman lost

Bob Wakeham
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There are obviously people much more qualified than I am to say or write a few words about the late Elizabeth Finlayson.

Finlayson was the last witness at the Cameron Inquiry.

Her gut-wrenching testimony provided a dramatic and emotional punctuation mark to what had been endless revelations of incompetence and apathy, a litany of mistakes that undoubtedly cost lives, and an exposure of an absolutely atrocious example of spin-doctoring in which legal and political considerations superseded common decency.

Finlayson and dozens of other courageous women bared their souls during that inquiry, which had the province mesmerized.

It was their words that have hopefully ensured that such a tragic debacle will never, ever occur again and that those wielding power will never be inclined (will be frightened to death, so to speak) to put the protection of their own reputations and asses above all else.

Elizabeth Finlayson died earlier this month, and her daughter Tanya was quoted in The Telegram on Tuesday as saying she’s convinced her mother would still be alive if the original tests used to determine the type of treatment she required hadn’t been “botched,” a word that will always be synonymous with the breast cancer testing scandal.

Tanya and other members of the Finlayson family are the most appropriate people to talk publicly about what a grand and brave lady Elizabeth was, and about the daunting task they face in living out their years deprived of her presence. 

But I, as well, feel an obligation to refer to Elizabeth here because she and I had a bond, an emotional knot that ties together all of those who’ve fought cancer, the battlers who’ve gone toe to toe with the devil incarnate as it invades both body and soul.   

My tests weren’t botched. But there were incorrect interpretations of an MRI and a CT scan that prompted those in control of my care to determine I was terminal, that my treatment was to be labelled as “palliative.”

(I’ve recalled those events in this column previously, somewhat uncomfortably and defensively, a reluctance linked to my desire not to overly exploit my privacy for the sake of a newspaper column, a philosophy, however, outranked by a more compelling urge in this case to share and commiserate with other cancer victims.)

It was seven years ago that I was put through cancer’s wringer, and I’m now considered a “survivor.”

At this point, the chances of the disease returning to my system are minimal.

A miracle of sorts, the oncologists might call it. A piece of luck, I, the agnostic, would suggest.

But I have a good idea of the hell that Elizabeth Finlayson experienced. I know first-hand of the misery of surgeries and chemotherapy, and the mental anguish of constantly wondering whether you’ve only months to live, whether the next test result will deliver a verdict that will send you spiralling into an abyss of mental torture, whether that latest ache or pain is another deadly cancer wandering the system unabated. 

I was fortunate. Elizabeth was not.

But, tragically, as we all now know, Elizabeth was a victim of shocking ineptitude.  

Anything said by me at this point about Elizabeth is mere words and woefully inadequate — I get that, believe me — but I’d still like to tell Elizabeth’s family that there are thousands of us who will always recall the incalculable, unquantifiable contribution she and her fellow cancer patients made to Newfoundland by agreeing to speak in such a public way about the devastation in their lives, and that their decision to testify at the Cameron Inquiry may have saved lives.

There are way too many stories that occur in Newfoundland that individuals in positions of power would prefer to see disappear, to stay buried forever in the archives of news outlets, to gather dust in some desolate corner of Confederation Building: the sex scandal involving Catholic clergy, wrongful murder convictions, the Ocean Ranger tragedy, the Cougar helicopter crash and others, episodes where those in authority let down Newfoundlanders in the most dramatic and deadliest ways possible. 

And equally disconcerting is the fact that there are people who were not involved directly or indirectly in scandals and tragedies but still seem to contract an uncomfortable case of foot-shuffling whenever an embarrassing story from our past

is revived (I’ve even occasionally detected such discomfort in newsrooms).

Let it rest, they say. We’ve all heard enough, they say. It’s old hat, they say.               

But some topics beg to be discussed again and again and again.

And that includes the breast cancer testing tragedy. 

Elizabeth Finlayson would want it that way.  

Bob Wakeham has spent more than 30 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Tanya Finlayson
    July 29, 2011 - 09:35

    Wow, Thank you Bob for this amazing article. you have described my mother perfectly. She would be so honored to see how people felt about her and her bravery and strong will. She was the most wonderful person you would ever meet. Thank you again for not letting Eastern Health push this under the rug and move on. Our family would have liked nothing better than to move on but unfortunately we will never move on... Thank you again Bob. Tanya Finlayson (daughter)

  • Bob
    July 23, 2011 - 15:08

    Bob, nobody could have said it better. Pity, those responsible for the shag-ups are today going about their merry ways content their "I don't recall" responses to questions have kept them in their well paying jobs. Damn the lot!

  • JMP
    July 23, 2011 - 12:28

    Elizabeth Finlayson fought for what she believed in. There but for the Grace of God, go I, or for that matter many of us. There is no need to suffer in silence anymore as so many have. Speak your truth. Its only by remembering our past that we can change our future.

  • Fran
    July 23, 2011 - 09:43

    A lot of these scandals and tragedies occur because so many people are willing to blindly follow the leader rather than engage in some objective thinking. GOD FORBID a Newfoundlander should be perceived as not being a "good buddy." Right and wrong be damned.