Just when you thought the feminist struggle was petering out, along comes a seventies-style Super Woman to prove that yes, sisters, having it all is possible and doable if you have the drive and the right philosophy.
Beverly Thomson, 39, is the new co-host of CTV's Canada AM, a mother of two young children and a wife of 14 years. Not only that, she is a recent breast cancer patient.
All of which makes her a public face of the complex experience known as modern womanhood. She is an exemplar of how to survive and juggle its many challenges. Canada AM, a show that has been on the air for 31 years, reaches roughly 200,000 viewers, 60 per cent of whom are women. Thomson, who made her fight against cancer public following an outpouring of support from her fans at Global TV, where she worked prior to taking the Canada AM job, is a natural and shrewd choice to fill the shoes of Lisa LaFlamme, who left the show to become a roving foreign correspondent for CTV News after only two years in the co-hosting chair. Thomson has been celebrated as brave, determined, resilient and spirited. John Derringer, a morning host (and guy's guy) at Q107 made her one of the Toronto radio station's "Women We Love," a regular feature that honours women with a high babe quotient.
But Thomson's move to CTV wasn't without controversy. When she announced her resignation to Global TV in July, after the Canada AM job was offered to her, the network promptly sued her for breach of contract. Thomson anchored the 5:30 supper news show and had been an integral part of the team that rebuilt its format and content, causing its ratings to significantly improve. They settled out of court at the last minute in August, she says, adding that she cannot comment publicly on the matter.
If you think that living through those recent events is exhausting enough -- her cancer was diagnosed about 18 months ago and she completed treatment, including three months of chemotherapy and six and a half weeks of radiation, only last Christmas -- consider that, in her new job, she begins her day at 3 in the morning.
"Oh, I love the shift [of Canada AM]" she says cheerily on the set of the show, which she began co-hosting with Jeff Hutcheson and Seamus O'Regan in November. "I thought it would be more difficult than it is. Everybody was saying, 'How are you going to cope? You're not a morning person.' And I'm not," she laughs. "But if you get to bed on time, this shift is an absolute pleasure." (Her trick for waking up in the wee hours of the morning is to drink eight 12-ounce glasses of water after she rises and before she goes on air, live, at 6:30 a.m. EST.) After the show finishes at 9 a.m., she works at the CTV offices for another couple of hours before heading home to nearby Pickering. She has lunch with her children, a daughter, Taylor, who turns 10 today, and son, Robbie, who will be seven in a few days.
When they return to school in the afternoon, Thomson tries to nap for an hour. She then works out, greets her children when they come home, helps with homework, eats supper with them and falls into bed by 9 p.m.
Of course, every working mom needs a wife, and Thomson has one in the form of her house husband, Rob Dale, who is a commercial and industrial real-estate agent. But his full-time help at home was never planned as a long term solution. "We had lost a nanny and had day care trouble," she explains. In January, he will go back to work outside of the home.
Her strategy for juggling her many responsibilities is a personal philosophy she calls "imperfect balance." It is impossible to do everything well, she explains.
"You can't always spend the quality time you want to with your children or see your friends as much as you would like, but over the long term, you get to have all of those things. It's just that it's hard to get it in every single day. There's always something that has to give." Thomson is a cheerful, upbeat personality, whose sunny disposition belies a serious drive for making the most of what life offers. She couldn't turn down the opportunity to join Canada AM, even if it meant breaking her contract with Global, where she had been a news anchor for six-and-a-half years. "The journalism is the same. But I get to do more segments than I would ever have had the opportunity to do as host of a supper-hour newscast." Canada AM offers easily-digested morning fare: celebrity interviews, cooking and health features, hard news and entertainment.
Contrary to popular wisdom that suggests a brush with cancer can alter someone's life, Thomson maintains that she did not ruminate about her existential purpose when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2002. "To sit back and re-evaluate your whole life is an excruciating waste of life," she declares.
With no history of breast cancer in her family, the diagnosis came as a shock. In a self-examination, she discovered a large lump in her right breast and went to see her doctor the same day. Within days, she had a lumpectomy. Doctors told her it was cancerous. The next day, she returned to work, without telling any of her work colleagues the news.
"It was surreal. That day was a fog," she says. "But I didn't want anyone to know until I knew what the treatment was going to be."
In the summer, she told her employer that she needed to take three months off for chemotherapy. There was such an outpouring of support from viewers, she decided to do a mini-documentary about her treatment called There Is No Fear. "I didn't intend to talk about it, but there was clearly a need for people to reach out and for this subject to be discussed." She has since become a spokesperson for the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation.
"My focus was always on getting better. It's a conscious decision, like deciding to be happy, " she says.
"I have been through enough adversity to understand how that works," she says in a rare, unguarded moment. Asked if she could elaborate, she tells me that her mother, Lois, died of throat and esophagus cancer at the age of 53.
Beverly Thomson, the only daughter, was 20 at the time. Soon after, her brother, Douglas, then 24, was killed in a car accident near Markham, Ont. He was travelling with Beverly's boyfriend at the time, who was also killed. She has no other siblings. "Everyone has adversity in their lives," she says softly.
"And there's no comparison between one kind and another. The lesson you learn is how to move on." Her father, who was an investment dealer with Wood Gundy, is now a "doting grandfather," she adds.
Born in Toronto's affluent Lawrence Park neighbourhood, Thomson went to a local high school and then headed to York University, where she studied English and communications. But she quit after two years. Her brother had just died and she needed time to recover. She later entered Seneca College and completed the two-year program in broadcast journalism. "It's a dangerous desire to want to anchor," she advises. "You have to pick what you love, and success will follow. For me, to report was my first real desire." She worked at a Newmarket radio station upon graduation, later moving to CFTO News.
Dressed in charcoal grey pants and a sweater underneath a longish lavender jacket, Thomson is one of those made-for-TV members of the species: blond, blue-eyed, trim, and bubbly. We never expect newscast anchors to be more than one dimensional. They are familiar faces, that's all. Yet with her struggle against cancer in the spotlight of a medium that puts a premium on appearances, Thomson, who lost her hair following cancer treatment, has unwittingly become more interesting to us, more intriguingly human, because she is now seen as having more depth than the surface industry in which she works.But the point seems lost on her. "When I came back to work, I was there as a journalist, and my focus was to be healthy," she says with a shrug. Asked if she recognizes that people might look at her differently and perhaps with more curiosity, given her determination to face cancer and carry on, she has a simple reply. "I don't need [cancer]to define me as much as other people need it to be what defines me."