Two Communities Mourn Their Lizzie
On Saturday, March 4. 2017, Robert and I drove north to attend Elizabeth Dessureault’s funeral. Elizabeth was a leading light of the lung cancer advocacy community, and her death a week earlier had shaken a wide circle of people to their core, including me. When I found out that her funeral would be held in Cornwall, Ontario, less than two hours from my home by car, I realized that I had to attend to represent all those who had met her or followed her blog and Facebook posts.
To encounter Elizabeth was to love her. Diagnosed with lung cancer only two years ago, she had a sunny disposition and a compelling story. In her first year of marriage to Dax and 5 months pregnant, she found out that she had lung cancer. She was able to go on chemotherapy and keep her baby alive, giving birth two months early to a little boy they named Jack. She had genetic testing of her cancer and discovered she had the ROS1 mutation. She went on to take targeted therapy, enrolled in a clinical trial, and had surgery, after which she had no evidence of disease for four months. Alas, her cancer returned with a vengeance, and she returned to chemotherapy, then entered a phase 1 clinical trial at Massachusetts General Hospital with Dr. Alice Shaw, a leading specialist in her mutation. For those wondering what happened in the end, Elizabeth developed pneumonia on a trip home to see her son. Her lungs had become too compromised for further treatment, and she was kept as comfortable as possible in hospital until her death two weeks later.
I briefly met Elizabeth at the HOPE Summit in Washington DC last May. It wasn’t just her compelling story and her adorable very young child that made her stand out - it was how she was choosing to live her life. She raised thousands of dollars for lung cancer research, including selling leather bracelets made with her own hands. She met with politicians on Parliament Hill, educating them about the needs of lung cancer patients. She wrote an award winning blog. She also seized every opportunity to have memorable experiences with her family and friends. She had already been a person who never lost an opportunity to live life with love, joy, and a sense of adventure, and she kept right on doing so.
Attending the funeral was very moving, and I learned a lot about this remarkable woman. The first thing I learned was that there was a wide world that loved Elizabeth as much as the lung cancer community did. Hundreds of people came, filling the sanctuary and overflowing to the social room, where we watched the ceremony through a video system. The first tears fell when I looked at the order of service; born in 1989, she was eight months younger than my daughter. I learned that she and her family have a deep Christian faith. I also had not realized that she was a singer, and that she taught music. The words stamped on her bracelets are “Just Breathe”, and that motto predated her diagnosis - she taught it to her students in Alberta. She was born on Saint Patrick’s Day, and green was her favorite color. In her last weeks, she prepared her family for her passing by insisting that they share stories and laughter around her bedside. When she could no longer talk, Elizabeth passed out paper and pencils and asked her family to play Scattergories with her - and proceeded to win every game.
At the reception, I was able to talk with her family. They held my hand and told me that they were very glad that Chris Draft, lung cancer advocate par excellence, and I were there to represent the lung cancer advocacy community. Elizabeth’s mother remembered me from Facebook and blog comments, and said that our community was very important to Elizabeth, that we were the people who really understood what she was going through during the last two years of her life. We were as special for her as she was for us.
I brought a gift for her parents and her husband. During the week before the funeral, I published a Google Doc with the simple message, “We will remember you, and we will keep working to Change the Face of Lung Cancer”. About 180 people signed that letter. Her husband Dax and her parents, Louis and Robyn Denis, each have a copy with the names of people from all over the world who cared deeply about Elizabeth’s life.
For those who want to learn more, here are some links:
Elizabeth’s blog - from lizzie’s lungs.
Elizabeth’s video - Because of you. Her family played this video at her funeral, and I cried. I just watched it again, and cried some more.
Elizabeth's obituary (one of many, her story was shared across Canada) - Young Ontario Mother Dies at 27
The Chris Draft Family Foundation - Team Draft