Find a Little Joy Each Day: Lessons From A Cancer Warrior

“Every day find that little piece of joy” – it’s a daily motto that keeps Barb Mills going strong, and it’s also her advice for anyone struggling.

Barb fought the fight of a warrior when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 49, four years ago.

And she survived. And along the way she discovered new dreams, new goals, a new meaning to life and a new path forward.

barb mills 3

Barb Mills

After numerous rounds of chemotherapy, 25 radiation sessions, a double mastectomy, breast reconstruction, depression, physical pain, the writing of a book about her experiences, and, finally, recovery, Barb has slowly moved on.

But it has been anything but easy. Now, two years after the final surgery, she says she is happy.  She still has fatigue, cognitive issues, scar tissue, lymphedema, neuropathy in her feet, fibromyalgia (which she had before the cancer, but which has been exacerbated by it) and aches and pains and side-effects which she knows will never disappear and may worsen as she ages.

“They say life is short, and it really is.”

She also knows her illness changed her life in so many ways ways that she can never return to the place she was before.

“I’m still allowed to have bad days. I am not the poster child of happiness. Breast cancer is not a pink and fluffy happy cancer. People need to be aware of the ugliness of it because it is not a pretty thing,” said Barb, in an interview with JOURNEY Magazine.

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Photo by Moss Works

“But my outlook on life is a little bit different. I try not to stress over the little things,” she continued. “Am I happy? I think I just try to smell the roses more and find the little pieces that bring you peace and joy in my day. Once you start looking for them, they fall into place and you start seeing them more.


Her journey began in October, 2014, when she noticed a disfigurement in one of her breasts. Because her mammogram had been clear only a few months earlier, her doctor thought it was an infection, and prescribed antibiotics. But a Nov. 11 ultrasound was also booked.

The “roller-coaster into the journey of cancer” began when the ultrasound discovered it.

“I never asked what stage it was or the fatality rate. I just went into the doctors and said just fix it,” she said.

She found out later that she had been at a Stage Three level and the survival rate was 53%.

But when the cancer was finally beaten, and her breast reconstruction complete, Barb felt lost. Depression, something she had also experienced before the cancer, set in again.

She remembers feeling that she had finished the fight, “so why am I here? What can I do? What are my goals and dreams?”

I am a warrior book

Barb’s book cover

Her husband, Jim, had kept notes of all the doctors’ visits and medical reports and Barb had kept a journal of her feelings. She was able to turn these into a self-published book, I Am A Warrior, which describes her ups and downs, and her realisation that “work, having a job or career is no longer my goal in life to make me joyful. “

For 12 years, Barb had worked as a Disaster Management Co-ordinator for the Canadian Red Cross, a rewarding but stressful job.

“I’m glad I did the book. It’s my journey, not a how-to book, mine alone. But if it in anyway helps . . .  then that’s good, too.”

I Am A Warrior is available on and and there will be a book launch Oct. 15 from 7 to 9 pm. at Theatre on King in Peterborough.

Barb continues to work part-time at a Peterborough call centre, and is the mother of Grant, 27 and Drew, 24, but her passion is now Local Scene Studios — “where the arts come together”. It’s a not-for-profit production company for creative people  — artists, musicians, writers, sculptors, actors — in Peterborough, which she recently co-founded.

She has been involved in the arts community since she moved back to Peterborough 15 years ago from Sault Ste. Marie. Born in Toronto, she moved to Peterborough at age eight, met her husband at Brock University, and lived in St. Catharine’s for 15 years before spending one year in Sault Ste. Marie.  After her cancer journey, she plunged back into the world of drama. Recently she has become more involved in theatre both on stage and back stage.  Her true passion is being behind the scenes working on the details to put together a show and watching it come to life on stage. Local Scene Studios is her dream to have a place where all creative persons can come to gather to share their talents with each other and to do so affordably.

Its mission is to offer professional production services to all disciplines in the arts community and to also operate a volunteer theatre company which will produce plays from a wide variety of genres. Down the road, it hopes to have a physical space which can be rented at a reasonable cost to artists.

At the moment, Barb is

stage managing  EVIL DEAD The Musical, which will be presented by Killer Tree Productions Oct. 11 at Market Hall.

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Forrest and Wellington, always by her side

As she says in her book, describing her theatre work, “What a sense of accomplishment. I started to feel more connected to something in the way work had always made me feel. Like I could still contribute to my community and be proud of what I could accomplish. I understand now my limitations, be they physical, mental or emotional and, at the same time, believe in myself again to lead a productive life. I am slowly answering the question of why am I still here.”

“So live in the moment,” she sums up. “And my big message is, of course, find a little joy every day. Little things that make you laugh or give you that good feeling. They say life is short and it really is.”

By Melodie McCullough


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