Submitted                                Ottawa’s Mariam Abdel-Akher, left, with Saanich’s Kiera O’Connor at the Tip of the Toes dog sledding adventure in Quebec.

Submitted Ottawa’s Mariam Abdel-Akher, left, with Saanich’s Kiera O’Connor at the Tip of the Toes dog sledding adventure in Quebec.

Trip provides ‘screensaver moment’

Gordon Head teen dog sleds across Quebec

From dog sledding through rural Quebec to enduring the exhausting ritual of chemotherapy, the past 10 months has been an up and down ride for Kiera O’Connor.

Last month, O’Connor was one of 14 teenagers, all in cancer remission, who went on an eight-day dog sledding trek through the Charlevoix region of Quebec.

“When you got to the cabin at night and you saw the view, it was something you’d see on a screensaver, but you’re standing in it which was so beautiful,” O’Connor said. “It was everything I needed to heal after everything I’ve been through. It proved I can still do something.”

It’s an understatement to say the 16-year-old from Gordon Head has a new look on life. O’Connor was 15 when she was diagnosed with nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma last June. She’s since been through eight sessions of chemotherapy and is now in remission and back in Grade 11 at Mount Douglas secondary full time. She’s also dancing in the school program and back to riding horses in the Blenkinsop Valley.

The experience of traversing the Quebec mountains with others who’ve been through cancer was something else. There were no screens or electricity on the trip. In fact there were no watches.

“I knew when it was night, and when it was day,” O’Connor said, “and I’ll do it again. It was peaceful.”

O’Connor’s eighth and final round of chemo ended in November but life was far from rosy, with constant fatigue and a lot of recovery time, O’Connor said. During that recovery time, her head nurse was contacted by On the Tip of the Toes Foundation, a charity that takes a group of teens in cancer remission on outdoor adventures.

The nurse nominated O’Connor as an ideal candidate in terms of her progress, and it gave O’Connor an opportunity to make up for the European trip she was forced to cancel in the summer.

On the Tip of the Toes picked up all the expenses, flying O’Connor to Quebec and supplying everything she needed from goggles and over mittens (it was -35 C), down to the long-johns.

“I didn’t know much about dog sledding, I just knew I loved dogs and was excited to learn about it,” O’Connor said.

They stayed in wood-stove cabins at night and travelled by day with two mushers to a sled. “It was very traditional in how they treat the dogs and respect the dogs. It was fun to see,” O’Connor said. “It was fun getting to know the dogs, and how excited they’d be to see you.”

The teens were aged 14 to 19, and in just eight days, O’Connor is sure she made some lifelong friends.

“It wasn’t very long but spending so much time with the same people, without phones or electricity, we shared the experience of cancer treatment, we’d share our stories,” O’Connor said. “We found out that, ‘Oh, I’ve had that drug,’ or ‘that chemo’.”

In September, Mount Douglas and Gordon Head schools combined for Kaps for Kiera, a fundraising drive that raised $13,500 in partnership with a Gofundme page. The donations were split between the B.C. Children’s Hospital and Ronald McDonald House, as O’Connor stayed at the latter during her treatment.

O’Connor is now planning another campaign, with a goal of raising money for On the Tip of the Toes.

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