P.E.I. writer says book about late wife's years with cancer was 'a healing challenge'

·5 min read

On the cover of Peter Rukavina's new book is a photo of his late wife, Catherine Miller. She is smiling at the camera, dressed in a colourful knitted poncho with a backpack slung over one shoulder.

Although the book, Using Her Marbles: Chronicles of a Family Living with Incurable Cancer, is about Miller living with the metastatic breast cancer that claimed her in January 2020, Rukavina wanted to show that his wife "owned her cancer."

In the cover photo, Miller was "two years into her diagnosis, about to head off to a participatory democracy conference in Spain, with no health insurance," Rukavina told Matt Rainnie on P.E.I.'s Mainstreet.

"It was the last trip that she was able to take. She did it on her own. Yeah, it was a fantastic thing."

Submitted by Peter Rukavina
Submitted by Peter Rukavina

Rukavina, a well-known P.E.I. blogger and web developer, wanted to write Using Her Marbles, his first book, to help other families who may be going through a similar experience of cancer diagnosis and treatment.

"Every cancer journey is unique, but just a sketch of the terrain that was to come? I would have found that useful," he said.

Trying to, I guess, reach out a hand to those who are going to go down the same path... is what was behind this. - Peter Rukavina

Fear of the unknown is one of the hardest challenges, Rukavina hears from a lot of caregivers in families of people living with cancer.

"It's the feeling like 'This is a journey that you're the only one who knows anything about.' And so I think trying to, I guess, reach out a hand to those who are going to go down the same path, I think is what was behind this."

Using act of writing to process life

The book developed out of an email newsletter Rukavina sent to family and friends over the five years of Miller's illness.

"Although it really was a newsletter for friends and family, it was also a way for me to process everything that had happened. To write it down, I think, allowed me to receive some distance from it," said Rukavina.

Rukavina has been writing a blog for 20 years, so writing is often a part of how he processes his life.

"It was not unusual for me to seek solace in writing."

Peter Rukavina
Peter Rukavina

About six months after Miller died, Rukavina began to realize that those email newsletters could take the shape of a book. Going back to reread all of the emails was a challenge, however.

"A healing challenge, I would say, but a challenge nonetheless in rereading these words time and time again over the recent weeks."

Rereading the emails, he was also struck by how he, Miller, and their son Oliver, now 20, managed to continue in their daily lives through the many challenges of cancer treatments.

"It gives me a sense of pride for us as a family, as a household, that we went through all that and that there was as much life in those five years as there was, despite all the hell."

Marble metaphor helped Miller deal with cancer

The title of the book is taken from a metaphor Miller used to help get her through daily life with cancer.

"The metaphor was that you start the day with a certain number of marbles, let's say 100," said Rukavina.

All of the actions undertaken during a person's day, from getting up and making breakfast to meeting a friend for coffee or taking a walk, use up a certain number of marbles.

"At some point in the day, you're going to run out of marbles. And so the idea was that you ration your marbles," he said.

Luisa Carbonelli
Luisa Carbonelli

"I think Catherine did effectively use her marbles over those five years. And that metaphor helped her manage. So it seemed like a good metaphor to apply to the whole journey that she was on."

Son and dad 'doing OK' these days

Nearly a year after Miller's death, Rukavina said he and Oliver are "doing OK".

Just a few days after Miller found out her diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Rukavina said she spoke to the rector at St. Paul's church in Charlottetown about holding her memorial service there, even though she was not a member of the church.

"Her rationale being 'It's right across the street from our house, and if Oliver needed to escape, he could escape home.'

"And you know for the following five years, her mind was never far from, 'What becomes of my son after I'm gone?'"

Rukavina said his son, who was 14 when Miller was diganosed, helped get him through those first few months after her death.

"I hope I've helped him a little bit, too."

Talking about it helps

The other thing that helped Rukavina was talking about the hard things.

"At times where my mental health was on edge over this journey, more often than not, it's because I was keeping things bottled up. And when I had the chance to either write about them or talk to someone about them, that was helpful," he said.

"When things took a turn for the worse, often our road out of it was either to talk to one another or for us to talk to professional help, sometimes to talk to a pastor. I think that's kind of what the message of the book is underlying."

You can find Using Her Marbles: Chronicles of a Family Living with Incurable Cancer at Bookmark on Queen Street in Charlottetown.

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