‘It’s an opportunity to heal’: Maureen Tonge on life with brain cancer

Maureen Tonge says being diagnosed and going through treatment for brain cancer has been an opportunity to heal. Emelie Peacock photo
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When Maureen Tonge found out she had brain cancer and that it was inoperable, rather than being devastated she took a very different approach to the diagnosis.

“What I’ve been telling anyone who will listen is, this is a chapter in the book of Mo – Mo is my nickname – this is not the final chapter. I’m going to be around for decades to come,” she says. “Some people are like ‘Why you?’ and I say ‘Why not me?’ Everything I have done up to this point in my life, has prepared me to heal from this. Literally everything.”

Tonge has been at Sir John Franklin High School for 28 years, teaching generations of Yellowknife teenagers Art, Yoga, Fitness and Career and Life Management. Outside of teaching, Tonge has delved into the world of yoga and healing from a non-Western perspective, studying Ayurveda and experiencing Shamanic healing.

“For me, the mind-body-spirit approach, everything is connected, has been how I operate for as long as I can remember,” she says. Leading a very healthy and active lifestyle, Tonge says when symptoms began to appear last winter – including low energy and problems with balance – she chalked it up to anxiety and depression.

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By January 14th, Tonge was at Yellowknife’s primary care clinic. There, the doctor said he would order a CT scan to rule out the worst case scenario. “At this point I’m barely able to get a sentence out…And in my mind I’m like ‘what are you talking about? there’s nothing wrong with my brain.’ There was no way I was going there, again, the denial.”

From late January to mid-February, things got progressively worse with her balance, speech and movement. She also experienced seizures, including one grand mal seizure. During this time Tonge barely had any movement in her right side, and as a right-handed person was learning to eat with her left hand.

After her CT scan in Yellowknife, Tonge was medevaced to Edmonton’s University of Alberta Hospital. There, Tonge was diagnosed with Grade 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, which the doctors said was both incurable and inoperable.

“What was interesting was, I didn’t have any fear at all. And I hadn’t been in any pain since my seizures,” Tonge says. “I never looked at this as a death sentence, because there are actually people out there that are in their 30th year of survival with a GBM.”

Tonge’s approach and her reaction to the treatment she is undergoing – radiation and six weeks of daily chemotherapy, followed by the maintenance chemo she is taking and could continue for up to a year – is not what you would expect. Rather than a sentence or a curse, she calls this experience ‘a blessing.’

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“Everything about this has been such a blessing because I didn’t realize how unconditionally loved I was. I had no idea how strong my support system was. I had no idea the impact I’d made.”

From her family who rallied around her as soon as the diagnosis came, to the support from Yellowknife and her childhood home in New Brunswick and gifts arriving in her mailbox from all over the world – Tonge says she has been ‘mind blown’ by it all. “That’s the term I had been using until someone said ‘aah that’s kind of a weird term to use since you’ve got an inoperable brain tumor,'” she laughs. “But I am, I’ve been absolutely mind blown by the support I’ve received. And from literally all over the world.”

This process has not only involved realizing the ‘tribe’ she has around her, it has also involved healing on a deep level. In addition to the oncology team taking care of her, Tonge is working with naturopathic doctors specialized in brain tumors. She has gotten closer to her twin sister on an intuitive level and began healing from severe childhood trauma she had buried until now. “When you experience childhood trauma, if you bury it, then it’s just going to come out in another way, the results of the trauma,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to heal.”

Tonge says she will one day write a book about her experience, detailing the clarity she has gained through hindsight. For anyone undergoing a similar circumstance, she says it is important to find what she calls your ‘tribe’, a support system you can be fully yourself with even in times of pain or anger.

“Also recognizing that we truly are in control of our health,” and that you don’t need to put all of the control into the doctors’ hands. Tonge says exploring your options for treatment, as well as realizing the importance of lifestyle, diet and even the words you tell yourself are also crucial.

Tonge will share her story at the Sir John Franklin High School graduation June 28th.

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