Upon learning at the age of 36, in 1993, that her breast cancer had metastasized, Judy Reimer (BSN ’83) decided to find a constructive way to make use of her catastrophic experience. A single mother of two young children, she felt committed to leaving them with the lifelong knowledge that, while their mother might lose her life to cancer, it could never destroy her spirit. In 1995, with the encouragement of a collective of women who began meeting around her kitchen table, Judy conceptualized the idea for the Life Quilt for Breast Cancer Project.
In the years since its inception, the Life Quilt Project has captured the imagination of Canadians coast to coast, created a community networking mechanism unlike any other before it, and generated a foundation for raising awareness about practical support for women with breast cancer. Judy’s professional practice in mental health nursing made her acutely aware of how difficult it is for most people to share their stories of pain and loss, and to know how to listen to the stories of others. In quilting, she could envision people joining together to create a lasting testament to the impact of breast cancer, and weaving the stories of their own loved ones into every stitch.
When she died on October 3, 2002, Judy left behind three spectacular quilt panels. Each depicts a forest theme, metaphorically representing the breast cancer experience. “Cut in Prime” represents a ravaged clear-cut forest and symbolizes initial diagnosis and treatment; “Call to Rebirth” portrays the fireweed that signals the initial stage of healing; and “The Green Canopy” illustrates forest rejuvenation suggesting hope and self-renewal. The large images are surrounded by 136 smaller quilted squares, each contributed by women living with breast cancer, their friends or families to express their own thoughts and experiences with the disease. Each is an individual tribute to loss, love, hope, and courage.
Over 20,000 individuals across Canada have participated by stitching within the larger quilt panels or contributed a square to this magnificent project. Much of the actual quilting process occurred in town halls and community centres across the country. Many more people have been touched by the beauty and power of the exhibit as it travels around the country, creating a focus for reflection, connection, and action. As Judy well understood, through collective action, ordinary people create the extraordinary.
Judy’s dream as a mother was to show her children that she could bring light to the dark side of terminal illness. Her dream as a nurse was to create community resources for the practical support of women with breast cancer, and to facilitate the kind of open dialogue about breast cancer that might help people begin to find relief for their inner pain. She accomplished both in full measure.
Throughout her student years at UBC, her nursing career, and her final years as a breast cancer activist, Judy’s passion for life and for living well was infectious. She had a remarkable sense of humour, always applied with sincere compassion, and a delight for the absurdities inherent in bodily functions and impairments. She engaged with people who encountered her personally or professionally in a manner that made you feel interesting and valued. She was insatiably curious, and unafraid of confronting life head on; she leaves a legacy of hope, connection, and healing for all Canadians.