How my late aunt Susan’s words guided my life & education

Reflecting on my aunt’s speech about gratitude and hope

Ally listening to her aunt Susan’s speech.
Photo: 

Recently, I’ve been bombarded with advice about how to navigate university. I never expected the most meaningful guidance I’d receive, for university and life, would come from a speech my late aunt delivered over seven years ago.  

The speech—and her battle with cancer—taught me happiness isn’t something you’re granted once you’ve ticked all the right boxes, and it’s most certainly not something to postpone. 

My aunt Susan delivered it at a banquet for university students and faculty. She discussed hope, gratitude, and advice for students moving forward—advice that stands as a valuable reminder of why the last few years of her life were so fulfilling. 

Growing up, Susan played a major role in my life. She was my friend, my trustworthy ally, and my compassionate second mother whose warmth and care defined my childhood. After she passed from cancer, her memory and philosophy continued to inspire my family and I, shaping the way we interact with one another and the world.

In her younger years, she was as ambitious as she was hardworking. Bright, driven, and infectiously positive—she sped through life with the need to conquer it.

During her undergraduate studies at Queen’s, she dedicated countless hours to her schoolwork. She had a genuine passion for occupational therapy and welcomed the chance to impact the lives of others. 

This passion earned her a seat on the student council, and pushed her to work towards enhancing student life and learning. In her free time, she waitressed at the QP and was a majorette in the university band, proudly waving the Ontario flag at the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas, Texas.  

When she graduated, Susan quickly achieved her dream and became an occupational therapist, treating chronic care patients and people with schizophrenia. After a few years, she put her career on hold and married her husband Norm—completing her master’s degree at Western soon after. 

Her life was hectic but good. She’d set her goals and realized them, and she could finally enjoy everything she’d worked towards. 

Susan was also incredibly resilient, which she was forced to prove time and time again.

Forty-eight hours after giving birth to her second child, Susan learned her husband had died of a bacterial infection misdiagnosed as a pinched nerve. Heartbroken, she continued on fearlessly for her newborn daughter and four-year-old son. 

A couple of years later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she went into remission after months of chemotherapy and radiation, the cancer returned and spread; Susan passed away in 2011. 

I wish I could say my mind is chock-full of clear memories of my aunt, but that’s not the case.

I remember posing for her constant photos, her pancake art on summer mornings, and presenting her with a key lime pie when she first beat cancer. Most of all, I remember the smile that never left her face: it made you feel like there was nothing more exciting than creating a great day. 

Susan’s optimism made her more than a cancer patient. Her illness not only gave her a reason to fight back, but also to give back. 

Along with taking the opportunity to become an even more devoted mother, sister, and friend, she began canvassing and fundraising for cancer, and giving public speeches about her life and story. 

On her final birthday, Susan hosted a giant Halloween party and managed to raise $13,600 for the Cancer Assistance Services of Halton Hills, an organization which supported her during treatments.

She had an itch to give back—and a talent for captivating an audience. Whether speaking to over a hundred friends at her annual Christmas party, or giving an address at her local Curves gym, she loved to tell her story and was often encouraged to do so. 

The speech I was lucky enough to find was given to students at Grebel University College towards the end of her life. Asked by a close friend to inspire the audience with her life experience, Susan decided to share with them all the things she knew “for sure.”  

“The first thing I know for sure is life happens and it happens to everyone eventually,” Susan said. “What I know for sure is we need each other … I know for sure that people are incredible.” 

What struck me most were all the things she “wished” she knew—before she learned them when fighting cancer.

“In preparing for today, I thought what would I have liked to tell myself when I was in university,” she said. “At university I thought the girls in my class who spent evenings watching the then hit show Dallas were wasting time. [Later,] I couldn’t understand my sisters-in-law who would spend Saturdays walking around malls with nothing in particular to shop for.”

“I now know that it is important to sometimes do nothing, especially with others, because it is then we are open to creating real, human bonds.” 

I discovered Susan hadn’t always been the fearless woman who I came to know, and in many ways was like me. 

A self-proclaimed “workaholic, type A perfectionist,” she struggled with worry, inadequacy, and vulnerability. She put things off, spent too much time working, and was often held back by the fear of making mistakes. 

Her younger self spent so much time trying to achieve happiness, she failed to realize that it’s a state of mind. 

I was 12 years old the last time I was able to talk to Susan. My biggest worry was waking up for school on time, and I still picked up a Barbie every once in a while. At the time, I may not have appreciated what my aunt had to say in her speech. 

Today, in the midst of figuring out my life, it’s something I certainly value. 

I’ll always be thankful my aunt’s speech found me at the right time in my life. I know I’m lucky to have had one more conversation with someone I loved, even if it was one-sided.  

If I’ve learned anything from my aunt’s life, it’s that you shouldn’t wait for something like cancer to force you to start living. The decision to be happy is our own—and it’s one that we make every day. 

As best said by my aunt herself, “We choose what defines us. Make an active decision to decide who you want to be.” Susan has left me with a lot of things: a great childhood, wisdom for the future, and my cousins, who are two of the most important people in my life. She also left me with the desire to enjoy everything that I have, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan. 

“I wish I knew when I was younger how resilient I was,” Susan said. “I now know I can cope with almost anything. If things are bad, things get better. Despite sadness, life is beautiful. There is always hope. We really only have today, so rejoice in it.”  

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