Speaking over the phone, Piper Gilles exudes the same vulnerability and grace exhibited in her performances. Her tone ranges from soft to fierce, as the Canadian ice dancer reveals for the first time some deeply personal details of the past several months – a brush with ovarian cancer weaved through her best season on the ice.
In the middle of their 11th and most successful year skating together, Gilles and skating partner Paul Poirier missed January’s national championships and February’s Four Continents tournament, announcing that she was recovering from an appendectomy.
But that was just a small piece of the story Gilles felt comfortable sharing at the time, part of a more complex and concerning medical situation. Now the 31-year-old world medalist and Olympian is ready to share her story, because she feels extremely lucky.
Gilles did have her appendix removed on Dec. 19, but that was an additional procedure to her scheduled surgery, added as a precaution. She was in hospital to have her left ovary removed, because weeks earlier doctors discovered that it contained a tumour some three centimetres long. A few weeks after its removal, a biopsy showed the tumour was cancerous.
Only a few people knew the extent of her surgery when she and Poirier returned to competition in March and repeated as bronze medalists at the world figure skating championships in Saitama, Japan.
“This isn’t a poor-me story,” Gilles tells The Globe and Mail in her first interview about it. “I don’t have cancer anymore. I’m good right now, but I just don’t want women to wait too long and find out it’s stage 4. I want them to listen to their bodies.”
Gilles began feeling unwell in late October during the Skate Canada International in Mississauga. She felt fatigue, plus an unusual abdominal pain that came and went throughout the weekend. She pushed it aside and caught up in the competition, which included the debut of their passionate free dance to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita. They skated to gold that weekend and looked poised for a big season.
Yet Gilles’s stomach pain, coming in waves on the left side of her body, persisted in the week after Skate Canada. Her coach and her husband each insisted she visit a doctor. Begrudgingly, she went to a walk-in clinic near her home in Toronto.
A doctor advised her to go for an ultrasound and visit a gynecologist. When she soon learned of the tumour, Gilles wasn’t thinking the little mass was cancer. She wanted to deal with it later, so she could stay focused on the skating season – one that showed potential for the Canadians’ first world title.
“I was like, ‘This is all manageable, I can do this at the end of the season, I can manage pain,’” Gilles recalls. “And the doctor was like, ‘Well, no, we need to get you in for surgery to get this out.’”
Gilles went for blood work in late November, just before she was set to leave for the Grand Prix in Espoo, Finland. She recalls a frightening red warning sign on her test result, and an antigen number that was high. The doctor said she shouldn’t panic. A blood test alone couldn’t diagnose ovarian cancer, and there could be another reason for an elevated number on the blood test. To know for sure, they needed to remove the tumour and test it.
“I was leaving for Finland the next day and I’m like, ‘How do I digest the fact that this is possibly cancerous?’” Gilles says. “I didn’t want to tell people because I didn’t want to concern them, but I was scared.”
So many things ran through her mind. She and her husband, Nathan Kelly, had just married in September, and she wondered if this could derail their plans to have children. Cancer had affected their family so much already – she lost her mother; and her husband lost his father.
Skating felt like a nice distraction. She and Poirier not only took gold in Finland, but also at the Grand Prix final in Turin, Italy, in early December.
“That was probably the highest moment in my life, just celebrating with them,” she recalls. “Then I remember coming back to the hotel room afterward and being like, ‘Okay, now I’m back down to earth. I’m going into surgery next week, so here we go.’”
Gilles had the operation on Dec. 19. They removed the left ovary – with the tumour still intact – and took the appendix out, too, as a precaution. She thought she’d recover in time to compete in the Canadian figure skating championships, starting Jan. 9 in Oshawa. She’d need to heal four small incisions in her abdomen and one larger one lower in the pelvis. Just sitting up in bed would be difficult for a while.
“It was pretty apparent the moment I woke up, that nationals was out of the question,” she says.
As Canada’s best skaters were competing in Oshawa, Gilles was just easing back onto the ice. She didn’t have the biopsy results yet, so she decided with Poirier and their coaches that, as they pulled out of the competition, they would only share publicly the part about the appendectomy.
She got the results of the biopsy on Jan. 16 – her 31st birthday – that the tumour had been cancerous. Until now, she has kept that information to a small group of family, friends and her close skating circle. She felt fortunate it was discovered in stage 1.
“I knew that everything had been taken out of me,” she says. “But I didn’t know the risks of any of that coming back.”
She’s now going for ultrasounds and blood tests every few months. So far so good. Gilles still has a right ovary, and the doctor assured her a woman only needs one to have children. The skater, who is one of five kids herself and wants a family, was relieved. She learned she also has endometriosis, which can also have an impact on getting pregnant. Gilles is learning about fertility options, just in case.
She wanted to resume this promising season with Poirier. That required lots of physiotherapy work on her core, muscles the ice dancer uses in every part of her skating, from simple crossovers to being lifted in the air, holding elegant positions, or pulling her leg up behind her head.
“This was a very challenging road of recovery,” said certified athletic therapist Stefanie Moser. “Every exercise I gave her, she asked me, ‘How many times can I do this?’ Most patients, I have to say, ‘I want you to do this X number of times a day’. She was so compliant, so motivated. She said, ‘Tell me what I have to do to have a chance.’”
Gilles trained wearing back braces and core shorts to support her fatigued abdominals and back, as the duo worked through their programs, making it tough to rediscover her natural movement and flexibility, tweaking the duo’s rhythm together in a sport judged on unison and beauty. Things she could do with ease before were much harder. The duo chose to take some pressure off themselves by pulling out of Four Continents in February in Colorado Springs, and making their return at the worlds in late March instead.
“We were very mindful of the need to protect her health and her recovery, and minimize the risk of complication,” Poirier says. “This is one of my best friends, someone I’ve known for a chunk of my life, and we were thinking about her mental well-being through this, too.”
They arrived in Japan as front-runners after their win at the Grand Prix final. Under her dress, Gilles had athletic tape hugging her core. They skated to a world bronze medal, and while they would have loved to win, it felt like a triumph.
“That was probably one of the hardest competitions I’ve ever had to do in my life, just because I had to face people again, they wanted to know how I was doing, and I had lovely messages online,” she says. “I didn’t feel like myself, because there wasn’t truth to my situation. People didn’t understand what that medal meant to us.”
With the competitive season over, Gilles and Poirier are now skating in the touring show Stars on Ice. She felt World Ovarian Cancer Day – May 8 – was the right time to tell her story, adding “it’s going to be a nice weight lifted.” She says she’s dealt with very painful menstrual periods much of her life. Surely, a strong athlete could push through.
“Many of us complain about painful periods, but we overlook it and no one actually says, ‘Maybe you should go get checked,’” Gilles says. “It’s not normal for women to experience that much pain. We just overlook this stuff, but I think it’s important to talk about it.”