For 15 years Beth Gherson worked as a nurse at Sinai Health, in the Women’s & Infants’ Health department. She had her three children at Sinai Health and while her career eventually took her to another hospital, she continued to feel a big affinity with Sinai Health. But she never dreamed that one day she would be returning to Sinai Health as a very different kind of patient. “I just never imagined I’d need to use them that way!” says Beth.
In 2021, Beth went on a hiking trip. An avid hiker, this was not unusual for her. During the trip she hurt her shoulder, though not seriously. Upon her return she visited a massage therapist, hoping to get the kinks in her shoulder worked out. He told her to continue with massaging at home, with specific direction to go further under her clavicle and below her breastbone, to release the tightness in the muscle. Beth did just this, and in the process, found a lump.
“It’s an unusual place to find a lump. But I was quite calm when I discovered it,” says Beth. She knew the next step was booking a mammogram, to get more details on the lump. “Far too few women know that you can book a mammogram without a doctor’s referral. I called and booked an appointment for the very next day.”
From here, things picked up speed quickly. Beth had discovered her lump on May 18, had her mammogram on May 19, and was told she needed a biopsy shortly thereafter. When the biopsy came back confirming the lump was cancer, she saw an oncologist and then, on June 3, she started chemotherapy at Mount Sinai Hospital’s Marvelle Koffler Breast Centre, or MKBC.
“The hardest part for me was telling other people, specifically my kids. I have three adult children, and this was tough news to share. But really, I was concerned about other people - I didn’t want anyone else to be sad. Because of my medical training, I understood the journey I would have to take, and the hospital is a very familiar place for me, so it didn’t feel particularly hard or scary,” says Beth.
The biggest challenge Beth felt was going through this all during the COVID-19 pandemic. “No one could be with me, because of the pandemic. And that was very hard but not just for me. For all patients receiving cancer treatment. I benefitted from still being very connected to the Sinai Health community, so some of the residents and other staff I had known would pop over and say hi, provide a bit of company,” she says.
When describing the chemotherapy she went through, Beth says it was terrible. Essential, but terrible. “The staff who work with chemotherapy patients are amazing, without exception. They are supportive and reassuring and work their tails off to make all their patients as comfortable as possible. I’m a nurse, so I’m very critical of how people take care of me. I do not have a single negative thing to say about the care I received.”
The surgery she had following chemotherapy - a large lumpectomy - was successful. “My surgeon, Dr. Escallon, was lovely. On the day of my surgery, he came to meet me, held my hand and walked me to the OR, gave me a warm blanket, made sure I was comfortable. He just went above and beyond in so many ways.”
Following the surgery, Beth began a radiation regimen, followed by targeted chemotherapy. Her last day of chemotherapy is scheduled for May 26, just over a year after her cancer journey began. “I’m planning a big party on that last day friends with cowbells, lots of yelling to celebrate,” says Beth.
“I have HER2 positive cancer, and five to ten years ago that would have been a terrible diagnosis. But because of science and research we know how to treat it today.” Beth feels so strongly about the positive impact science and research can have on disease treatment that on top of managing her own cancer journey, she decided to start fundraising for breast cancer research at Sinai Health’s MKBC.
“Initially my friends who own The Caledonian pub wanted to do a fundraiser to support me during my chemotherapy treatment. One of the drugs I was on is not covered by OHIP and was extremely pricey. But I didn’t feel comfortable with that. I was, however, comfortable with having a fundraiser for research at Sinai Health, as that benefits many people,” says Beth. This led to Beth using one of The Caledonian’s ongoing ‘Women & Whisky’ series as a fundraising initiative. “I spoke about my journey and what it was like to have breast cancer. The audience was not just people I knew, there were regulars for the Women & Whisky series. We also bent the rules for my fundraiser and allowed men to join - typically the ‘Women & Whisky’ nights are women-only. Some of my old Sinai Health colleagues attended, which was really nice to see,” says Beth.
Since then, Beth’s talks have become very popular. She has several friends who work as Ambassadors for various whisky brands, and they routinely invite her to speak to their audiences, to help raise awareness of the importance of research and science. To-date, Beth has raised more than $23,000 for breast cancer research at Sinai Health. And, Beth has continued with her Women & Whisky involvement, too.
“My talks are a little bit different every time. Sometimes I invite doctors to join me in speaking. I talk about my journey, I talk about the expenses I’ve experienced. We talk about screening and awareness. And we talk about my hair! Part of Women & Whisky has been an evolution of my hair - from a blonde bob to bald, to this fabulous wig I wore a few times, to now the hair that’s growing in again. People are so scared about things like losing their hair - it’s just hair! It grows back! But this is part of why I share my story so publicly, to help raise awareness about all aspects of breast cancer and the journey with it,” Beth says.
“I think women of a certain age still don’t really talk about their bodies younger women are much more comfortable doing this. But we need to break down that barrier! I went hiking in Scotland with friends. There were six of us. Today, four of us have had cancer, three of us breast cancer. We need to be more aware of signs, symptoms, screening, and how to advocate for our own best health. Because the sooner you get diagnosed, the better your likely outcome,” says Beth.
With her treatments ending soon, Beth looks forward to returning to some of her passions, like travelling. “I’m still working on getting my energy back to what it was. I walk about 10k a day now, which helps me feel more like myself. But I’m not quite back to who I was before this all started.” Beth also plans to return to nursing, though likely on a part-time basis. “And I want to find a way to keep going with my talks. Eventually the crowd at The Caledonian will tire of my story, but I will use any platform I can to spread awareness about breast cancer, and the importance of scientific research. People are scared of getting a diagnosis, I think. But the more we know, the better your outcome is likely to be.”
Sinai Health is grateful for the support of Beth Gherson and her friends, family, and fellow whisky drinkers. To learn more about Beth’s Women & Whisky series, visit her website.
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