Awareness • Early Detection • Treatment • Research • Survivorship

Rest in Peace Elizabeth Dessureault

Young Ontario mother who ‘changed the face of lung cancer’ dies at 27: ‘I was just so close to that miracle’

Blair Crawford, Postmedia News | February 28, 2017 |

“Anyone with lungs can get lung cancer,” Elizabeth Dessureault liked to say.

“I’m hoping that by sharing my story with others that I’m able to change the face of lung cancer to show that a 26-year-old, non-smoking, new-mom-to-be can get lung cancer, then anybody can.”

Dessureault was pregnant and working as a teacher in Fort McMurray, Alta., when she was diagnosed in April 2015 with advanced stage non-small cell adenocarcinoma lung cancer. She moved back to Ottawa to be near family after a doctor gave her a year to live. But she vowed to fight the disease, to enjoy life with her new son, Jack, and her husband, Dax, an RCMP officer and former standout Ottawa Gee-Gees basketball star.

That her fight ended Saturday morning in hospital in Ottawa has devastated her friends and family and thousands of followers who found support and encouragement on her ‘From Lizzie’s Lungs’ health blog and Facebook page.

She was 27.
“We are all desperately sad here today. She leaves a huge impression on all the people she touched,” said Dr. Paul Wheatley-Price, president of Lung Cancer Canada and an oncologist at the Ottawa Hospital Cancer Centre.

“That’s what Lizzie did so effectively — to bring to the public eye in that lung cancer can affect anyone. Such a beautiful young woman and such a positive attitude. She really just lit up every environment she was in.”

Dessurault was five months pregnant when she began chemotherapy treatment. Her treatment continued after Jack was born, two months early. She wrote about his birth in an August 2016 blog post.

“That day was filled with so much happiness and love. It was also filled with fear – Fear of not getting to see my son grow and fear of missing out on so many of his life’s ‘firsts.’ We recently celebrated his first birthday – a day that I was so afraid of missing. I feel as though I am living on borrowed time and am so unbelievably grateful to be here to share each day with him.”

She signed each post with a sunny ‘Lizzie xo.’

“She really understood the diagnosis and understood it was a battle,” said Chris Draft, a former National Football League player who befriended Dessureault and her family after reading about her in a November 2015 Citizen story.

“From the beginning she accepted it and moved forward with her very positive mindset. It allowed her to make the most of every day, but at the same time to be realistic,” said the former linebacker, whose Chris Draft Family Foundation encourages healthy living, particularly around asthma and lung cancer. Draft’s “supremely fit” wife, Keasha, died in 2011 at age 37, less than a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

That Dessureault was able to have her baby while undergoing cancer treatment, and enjoy nearly two years of life after her diagnosis, shows that progress is being made in treating the disease, Draft said.

“It says a lot about the advances that have been made. It’s very hard to see, but it’s very important to see,” he said. “When the drugs are working, your quality of life can be tremendous. That’s what hope looks like. But the fact that Liz passed shows there’s a still a lot of work to do.”

There was no history of lung cancer for Dessureault, a Cornwall, Ont., native and former teacher. She grew up in a non-smoking household and there were no hints of a genetic predisposition to the disease.

Though there is a strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer, fully 15 per cent of those diagnosed with the disease have never smoked. Lung cancer kills on average 10,000 women a year in Canada, twice the number who die of breast cancer; more in fact, than all other female cancers combined, Wheatley-Price said.

From the beginning she accepted it and moved forward with her very positive mindset

The five-year survival rate for someone with lung cancer is just 17 per cent, compared to 85 per cent for breast cancer. Though lung cancer causes 25 per cent of cancer deaths in Canada, it receives just seven per cent of the funding, he said.

Dessureault was fortunate that her tumour had a rare genetic marker known as ROS 1, which opened up the possibility of using a targeted treatment to attack the tumour with very little side effects.

Dessureault and her family were able to visit Disney World and took a Caribbean cruise during her illness. She and Dax were Draft’s guests at a 2016 Super Bowl party in San Francisco. She sold ‘Just Breathe’ bracelets and handbags to raise awareness. From Lizzie’s Lungs was named the top health blog of 2016.

But the good news turned bad last fall.

“These past two weeks have been incredibly challenging,” she wrote in November. “Unfortunately, last Tuesday we learned that the drug that I had taken since February, Lorlatinib, was no longer working and I had progression of disease… This time to both lungs.

“Despite the fact that we always knew that this could happen (and with lung cancer, there was a very high probability), I was just so close to that miracle. My NED (no evidence of disease) status was taken away from me much sooner than I had hoped.”

Living with cancer was her “new normal,” she wrote.

“Despite everything that has happened … I absolutely love my life. I consider myself to be one of the luckiest people in the world because I am surrounded by the most amazing people.”

In December she wrote that the cancer had spread to her bones and she was developing blood clots.

“On the bright side, my brain scan was clear! (I’ll take wins where I can get them!).”

Dessureault knew that people looked to her for inspiration, Draft said. She didn’t dwell on the hardest parts of her illness.

“It was important for her to stay positive to inspire people, so she didn’t want to go too deeply into where she was at,” Draft said, in a phone call from Atlanta. “She knew it was a battle. It was important to her to keep them upbeat.”

Elizabeth Dessureault’s funeral will be held Saturday, March 4 at 2 p.m. at Knox St. Paul United Church in Cornwall. There is no visitation.