Pamela Wallin ─ On Success, Strength, Surviving Cancer, and Being a Senator
By Carol Crenna
The honourable Pamela Wallin, former broadcaster and Ottawa bureau chief, and New York Consul General, is now a well-known Senator, appointed to the Senate of Canada in 2008. She is Chair of the National Security and Defence Committee, serves the Special Committee on Anti-terrorism, and is a member of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs & International Trade Committee.
Pamela received the Order of Canada, six honorary doctorates, and recently became an honorary colonel. She has written books including Speaking of Success: Collected Wisdom, Insights and Reflections, based on past interviews, and a bestselling memoir Since You Asked.
She was diagnosed with and survived colon cancer in 2001, and became a spokesperson for it. I spoke with Pamela about her lifestyle, colon cancer diagnosis, and views about having a career in politics.
CAROL: You’ve come along way — from being a social worker in a penitentiary in Wadena, Saskatchewan to covering wars as a journalist on the front lines to becoming an international diplomat and politician.
PAMELA WALLIN: (Laughs) Sometimes I don’t think I’ve come that far. When in New York as Consul General, for example, I still saw a lot of people on Wall Street heading off to jail.
CAROL: Where do you get the strength to continue reinventing yourself?
PAMELA WALLIN: From my upbringing. I was the only kid I knew whose mother worked outside the home professionally. I had a rare experience then of growing up thinking that women did it all, and that I had to take care of myself.
In grade 10, I lived with my grandmother and managed her entire household. When I got into the world and was told that “women don’t do these things,” I felt motivated because it made no sense to me.
We had an intellectually inquisitive family and were allowed to speak freely at the dinner table. My father would ask a question, and if we didn’t know the answer he wouldn’t offer it, but would tell us to look it up, not knowing he was creating a journalistic mind.
CAROL: I’d like to ask you the same question you once asked Rick Hansen. If you had the chance to change life’s circumstances – not to have had cancer, or not to have been so publicly fired from Prime Time News – would you?
PAMELA WALLIN: No. I don’t want to sound trite, but not even the cancer. Cancer isn’t a good experience, but I think any challenge teaches you a lot about yourself.
You let yourself get so busy and mistakenly think that the world wouldn’t turn without you doing exactly what you do; you forget the greater scheme of things. It made me dig deeper.
CAROL: Have you changed your lifestyle since your cancer? Especially since that cancer is thought to be so closely linked to lifestyle?
PAMELA WALLIN: Having cancer changed the way that I dealt with mortality. I thought, like everyone does, that I was invincible. When it first happens to you, you deal with immediate factors of treatment and survival.
But then you have to decide what else you’re going to do about it.
CAROL: What about diet and exercise?
PAMELA WALLIN: I still live a very busy, high stress life because I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t. I try to be healthy, but in my job I eat professionally ─ I have to ‘do’ breakfasts, lunches, dinners and cocktails.
Yet I have now learned to listen to my body, and am sensitive to when I’ve gone beyond my limits. I was too busy to listen before so I missed symptoms that told me when things weren’t right.
I’ve always been a migraine suffer, for example, and I now know when one may be coming so that I can take precautions. I try to incorporate walking into daily life, but I don’t do rigorous exercise.
CAROL: You had your cancer operation in mid September (the same week as 911) and were on your book tour by late October. Why did you get right back at it without giving yourself time to rest?
PAMELA WALLIN: You need to bring back a comfort zone when this happens, and for me that was work. Yet more important, my doctor told me that other diseases had been taken up as causes by Hollywood, yet no one wanted to be the poster girl for this unglamorous, potentially embarrassing one.
I was shocked to learn its prevalence and my level of ignorance about it. If a well-informed person who works in the media with access to all kinds of information is ignorant, what about most people? I had the chance to talk to thousands of people on my tour so I decided to use it for the cause.
CAROL: Some believe that cancer is a symptom that something is out of balance, spiritually, emotionally and physically. Do you agree?
PAMELA WALLIN: I don’t know the cause of my cancer, but I believe it meant that there is something out of balance. It didn’t come from nowhere, and stress and lifestyle exacerbate it.
It is a wakeup call for those who survive, and it’s incumbent to them to make changes. How lucky can you be to get a second chance?
CAROL: And you took advantage of that chance.
PAMELA WALLIN: Cancer made me appreciate what I had, and be open to opportunities. It also made me realize that I had to take life and everything that it offers. It’s the reason I’m here; when I was asked if I wanted to take on a new life challenge, like moving to New York or working in the Senate, I knew that I had to say yes!
Sometimes we don’t see the opportunities in life because we make ourselves too busy to stop and think.
CAROL: You once said that by facing a crisis you are forced to go inside and see what’s there. What did you find when you went inside?
PAMELA WALLIN: I found unanswered questions. What is it that I’m doing this all for? I love working very hard, but I had to stop and find out, for what end? You need the frame on a picture to help you focus and define what you’re looking for or else the picture would go on endlessly and seem meaningless. You have to do this in life, too, because you can’t do everything.
My focus is about making my efforts matter. I want someone to change their mind about something they have always believed. That takes getting to know people more deeply, rather than superficially.
CAROL: Do you feel Canada-US relations have improved?
PAMELA WALLIN: For too long we have operated on stereotypes; we think we know what Americans are like, and they think they know similarly about Canadians. But the world has changed dramatically, and we need to rethink on both sides how to help each other and deal with our scars.
CAROL: What are you learning about relationships as a diplomat and politician?
PAMELA WALLIN: I learned that everything you learned when you were six years old about relationships is the same lessons you need to relearn throughout life. I think that everything, no matter what you do, is about relationships.
And whether it’s a love relationship, friendship, boss, employee or between two countries, it’s more about how you get along during the bad times than good ones. That’s achieved through operating on trust.
CAROL: How do you find balance?
PAMELA WALLIN: Life balance is built on relationships, too, because friends and family give balance. If you try to look for life balance as some intangible achievement, it won’t work if these pieces of the puzzle don’t fit right first.
CAROL: You are so focused on your mission. Do you have any advice for those still searching for direction in their career?
PAMELA WALLIN: Find what makes you truly happy.
CAROL: Do you miss interviewing the world’s newsmakers?
PAMELA WALLIN: No. I now have those interesting people at my dinner table instead of in front of a camera, so in many respects the conversations can be more frank.
Article by Carol Crenna, featured in VISTA Magazine and in the new cookbook Breast Friends Inspire Health