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Belinda Stronach on staying strong: 'I wasn't expecting to face mortality'

Belinda Stronach has beaten breast cancer. And she has changed.

Arriving on Parliament Hill in 2004, tightly clutching a script that she seemed afraid to veer from, the Liberal MP for Newmarket-Aurora is now totally unscripted as she speaks, thoughtfully and sometimes humorously, of her journey with cancer, including the decision she had to make about saving her right nipple.

"Now this gets very personal," she said yesterday in an interview. "But, 'hey, let's lay it out there': It's about whether to save the nipple or not. I didn't like the thought of just removing the nipple if I didn't have to."

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Last February, a routine mammogram gave Ms. Stronach, 41, a clean bill of health. However, a lump she had discovered before the mammogram continued to bother her.

A doctor she knows suggested she pursue it. A few months later she had an ultrasound and as she was announcing to her constituents and the news media that she would not seek re-election, she was also dealing with a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ, a form of breast cancer, in her right breast.

It was a crazy time for her, she recalls.

Two large lumps - five and eight centimetres in diameter - had to be removed. The good news was that the cancer had not spread into her lymph nodes but the doctors were concerned they didn't get it all.

So there were more decisions to make. And there would be more surgery: Ms. Stronach had a choice between another more invasive lumpectomy and radiation, or a mastectomy and breast reconstruction - "which was not appealing to me, I've got to tell you," she said.

She opted for the latter; her doctor recommended a surgeon in California who could do a mastectomy at the same time as the reconstruction. Very few women in Ontario who have mastectomies have reconstructive surgery because of the lack of access to it. Ms. Stronach paid for the operation, which she underwent last June.

"Again there is no black-and-white answer. ... It's life and you have to make the decision which is in the best interests of your family and yourself," she said.

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She will, if asked, describe in detail how skin was taken from her back to reconstruct her breast and, yes, she said, doctors were able to save her nipple.

Ms. Stronach said she never stopped to feel sorry for herself. In fact, three days after her surgery she gave a speech in Regina for her colleague, Ralph Goodale. The speech went well; her chief of staff, Greg MacEachern, stood on her right side, making sure she didn't get bumped.

She also collected all the information she could to make informed decisions. And she fought hard.

The toughest part, however, was telling her children, Frank, 16, and Nikki, 14, about her disease: "You don't want them to worry."

Now, she says, she feels terrific. She has adopted a vegan diet, eating only vegetables, legumes and tofu. She does yoga four to five times a week.

"I decided after the cancer, when you look to what could possibly have triggered it, you have to change your patterns in your life."

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More than that, however, Ms. Stronach said she feels "extremely lucky." Her doctor told her she had never seen "a woman with so much DCIS in her breast that wasn't invasive cancer."

So lucky and healthy that she has carried on with everything - raising her son and daughter, politics, the family auto parts business, Magna International, and her philanthropic work.

Coincidentally, CTV doctor Marla Shapiro called her, not knowing that she was suffering from breast cancer, to ask her to help raise money for a chair at Toronto General Hospital for breast cancer reconstructive surgery. Ms. Stronach took some time to recover and then raised $1-million.

And on the political side? Yesterday, Ms. Stronach, as chair of the Liberal women's caucus, released "The Pink Book: A policy framework for Canada's Future Volume 2." The book, which emulates the Chr├ętien Liberals' policy red book, lays out a platform and policy options that speak to women.

And as she looked back on this past year, Ms. Stronach said, she feels that the cancer was a "gift."

"It's an odd gift because it allows you to kind of say 'Hey, you know what? I had to face mortality.' I wasn't expecting to face mortality and it kind of gives you a second chance at life and it allows you to view things through a different lens."

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