Mother, sister, aunt, friend, colleague, pancreatic cancer survivor. Born June 25, 1945, in St. John’s, Antigua. Died Aug. 18, 2011, in Toronto of brain cancer, aged 66.
If you ever saw Francilla Charles, you would never forget her. As a stranger said to her on her way to work three months before she died, “You are looking thinner, but as elegant as ever.”
Francilla was the second of three children of Laurence and Christine “Dickie” Charles. As children, she and her brothers, John and Kelvin, travelled with their parents to Guyana, Nigeria and England. Their father was a malariologist for the World Health Organization and eventually was appointed as chief medical officer for the Bahamas.
Francilla and her brothers were educated in boarding schools in England. Like her brothers, she pursued a career in medicine. She trained as a nurse at Charing Cross Hospital in London from 1965 to 1967. After graduation, she continued to live in London, where she married Robert Clarke. They had two daughters, Jacqueline and Michele.
The family moved to Trinidad in 1972 and she raised her daughters there, eventually as a single mother.
Following Jacqueline, who had moved to Toronto to pursue her undergraduate degree, Francilla emigrated with Michele in 1992 and shortly after became a Canadian citizen.
After a brief period working as an assistant in her brother’s medical office, Francilla accepted a position at insurer Aetna Canada in 1993. In 2005, she moved to the University of Toronto as an accommodation and disability consultant.
Francilla’s own experience with cancer deeply informed her work with employees who were coping with illness. Her mantra was “work is healthy.”
Work was important in her life, but her daughters came first. As a single parent, Francilla was strict; she held her children to high standards and provided unconditional love. As she contemplated working less, her priority moved to travel with her daughters. She went to Morocco with Michele and on a wine tasting trip to California with Jacqueline.
At 52, Francilla was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Although she was given less than a 2-per-cent chance of survival beyond the first year, she returned to full-time work and all aspects of her life with focus and graceful determination. After she was diagnosed with a secondary tumour in her lung in 2006, her goal was “to be ill in the healthiest way possible.”
She was irrepressible. She would not hesitate to tell you if your bra made your breasts sag or if it was time for a visit to the hair salon. She spoke her mind yet managed not to offend. She battled ideas, not people.
Francilla was admitted to hospital for the last time on the day of her retirement from the University of Toronto. Two months later, she died of brain cancer. She was one of only six people in the world known to have lived with pancreatic cancer for that long.
By Myra Lefkowitz, Francilla's friend.
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