In 2015, Ena Chams' life took an unexpected turn that forever changed her. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Ena endured extensive chemotherapy, lost her right leg and underwent years of rehab. Today she walks with a cane, is a proud 30+ year RBC employee and shares her story to help others.
One in five Canadians aged 15 or older has one or more disabilities –6.2 million people across the country. Worldwide, over 1 billion people are living with at least one disability. December 3rd is the United Nations International Day of Persons with Disabilities – an observance that aims to promote the rights and well-being of people with disabilities in all spheres of society, and to increase the awareness of the circumstances they face in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.
When Ena Chams’ legs first started bothering her, her doctor told her she was getting osteoarthritis. A busy mom of three, she put her pain on the backburner, took ibuprofen when it got bad and just dealt with it.
Then, when out for a friend’s fortieth birthday celebration, the pain became excruciating – she couldn’t walk up or down stairs and a lump had suddenly appeared on her leg. A friend took her to Victoria Hospital in London, Ontario, where a scan revealed she had a hole in her bone. She was sent home and directed to call her family doctor the following Monday. But Ena knew something was wrong and reached out to her sister Helen in Connecticut at three in the morning. Helen sent the scan to her mother-in-law, a Chief of Medicine at one of the local hospitals there. Ena received a call from her thirty minutes later, asking her to return to the hospital. There, Ena learned the hole in her tibia was a result of advanced osteosarcoma, a rare form of cancer – the same cancer Terry Fox had.
Ena went through intense chemotherapy to treat the cancer, and while it didn’t spread, her tumour didn’t shrink – she was told her best chance at survival was to amputate her leg. “For the next two years, I spent months in hospitals in London and Toronto, enduring aggressive forms of chemotherapy. I was fighting every day, not only to survive but to not feel sorry for myself, to have hope and to ‘just be normal again.’ Unfortunately, during this time, a lot of my roommates lost their fight to this horrific disease and that took a toll on me as well, leaving me with survivor’s guilt. I thought it was unfair that I survived, and they did not,” recalls Ena.
During this time, Ena stayed strong for her family – her husband and three children. “They put everything on the line for me, she says. “When you get news like this, you’re not the only one getting the cancer diagnosis – it’s also your family and your friends because they’re going to deal with the same thing. While I may have the disease, they have to go through it all too.”
How a safe, comfortable workplace helped Ena regain her identity
When Ena was waiting for her first round of chemotherapy, she had to leave work and essentially wait at home, with nothing to do. As she spent more time away from work, fighting her illness, she felt a loss of her identity. “I had been working for RBC for 26 years at this point and had to adjust to not working anymore. After numerous therapies, trying to get myself on track, I returned to work earlier than expected because of my dedication to my role and emotional need to get back to being normal. I felt very fortunate to be welcomed back. I was completely changed both physically and mentally – physically, I lost a part of me that I had for 44 years, my leg. I had to learn how to walk again. Mentally, I had lost my self-identity, my independence, confidence and who I was for 44 years. Only five things in my life stayed the same – being a mom, wife, daughter, sister and an employee at RBC.”
Ena identifies with having both an invisible and visible disability, so understands the difficulties that come with both. With visible disabilities, she finds that people are more patient, sympathetic and understanding. But her disability is not always obvious and notes the impatience people display if she’s moving slowly, not understanding why she uses a cane or motor scooter. “It is important that people understand not all disabilities can be seen with the human eye – whether that is someone’s mental health, physical disability or something they deal with internally,” she says. “Everyone has to deal with a personal battle, and it does not make it easier when society places barriers in the way, or people aren’t accommodating.”
Back at work for three years, not a day goes by when her peers, leaders and partners have not been supportive. “I am still navigating to get to my new norm, and everyone here has proven to me that I can lean on them for compassion, empathy and support,” she says. “The environment created here has allowed me to feel comfortable and confident enough to speak up and share what I am dealing with.”
A hopeful future
Ena isn’t in remission yet, but the doctors haven’t found a trace of cancer in the six years since her chemotherapy treatment ended. Ena is optimistic about the future and hopes her journey can help raise awareness for people with disabilities.
“I don’t want people to look at me with pity in their eyes or tell me I’m strong and brave. I’m the same person I was before,” she says. “But before my disability, to be honest I found it hard to know how to act and what to say to support people with disabilities. Awareness and education are so critical to creating that safe, inclusive workplace.”
Ena is co-chair of the RBC REACH Employee Resource Group in her market, which publishes information and tips online and offers support, compassion and allyship. The RBC REACH mission is to eliminate stereotypes and stigma associated with persons with disabilities and drive engagement and performance through awareness, education, coaching and accommodation. Her personal mission now is to ensure that all employees know that they can turn to REACH for help navigating their needs and emotions.
“Mentally, my whole journey has been exhausting, but working at RBC makes me feel like I have a purpose – like I can lean on my company,” says Ena. She hopes that others managing with disabilities can access the support they need to feel the same way.
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