For the last 31 years, Carla Martinelli-Irvine has been fighting to save the lives of unwanted cats and dogs.
Today, she’s fighting to save another life — her own.
Martinelli-Irvine, 59, founder and executive director of the Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter, was diagnosed with breast cancer at the beginning of the year, roughly a month before COVID-19 arrived in the province.
"Whatever happens is going to happen," she says matter-of-factly. "I deal with everything head-on. I’m going to be fine. I know I am. I’m too stubborn. I’m a tough old chick.
"I feel very blessed they found it. I feel very lucky. I can’t say enough about CancerCare and how lucky we are to live in Manitoba. They’ve held my hand all the way through."
Martinelli-Irvine was eager to share her cancer journey because she believes it can inspire and comfort other women who are fighting the disease, and because she is determined to raise awareness for her no-kill shelter at 3062 Portage Ave., which has been hit hard by the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
'I'm going to be fine. I know I am. I'm too stubborn. I'm a tough old chick'‐ Carla Martinelli-Irvine
She phones the shelter multiple times every day, because she’s not allowed to visit in person until at least October, thanks to an immune system compromised by her cancer treatment and rheumatoid arthritis.
"It’s awful." she says about being ordered to recover at home. "I love the work that I do. I love the people who work with me and I love the animals very much. I love everything about it. It’s difficult not to go into work, but my health is important."
The ordeal began just before Christmas when her family doctor discovered a lump on one breast during a check-up. Next, came a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy.
On Jan. 9, at the Breast Health Centre on Tache Avenue, she got the grim news. "That’s when I was told I had breast cancer," she recalls. "It was like a roller-coaster. A lot goes through your mind. The first thing I thought of was my family. I didn’t know how I was going to tell my husband or my dad. I was wondering whether I’d be seeing God and go to heaven.
"But it was in that moment that I decided I’m going to be strong and I’m going to recover from this. Whatever hand I’m dealt, I’ll deal with it. I have great faith and felt God would walk with me."
Since that day, Martinelli-Irvine has undergone two surgeries and multiple rounds of radiation. The life-saving treatments have started to take a toll in recent days.
"It started to hit me last week — an overwhelming frailty," she says, insisting no question is too personal. "It was like being hit by a truck. It just smashes me and I have to rest a lot. I’m not that sort of person. I like to do things. I miss the animals."
She does, indeed, like to do things. Fresh out of Silver Heights Collegiate, she spent about six years as a clerical worker/auditor with the RCMP, then seven years as a guard at the downtown remand centre.
In 1989, driven by a lifelong dream to rescue unwanted pets, she opened Pet Pals, which became the first satellite adoption centre for the Winnipeg Humane Society. Ten years later, she won charitable status, changed the facility’s name, and Manitoba’s first registered no-kill animal shelter was born.
"When you work in a prison, you see one walk of life and I wanted to be on a different walk of life, and I love animals," she recalls. "Back then, if an animal wasn’t adopted, it was euthanized. I thought I could offer an alternative so people could give up their pet without fear it would be put to sleep.
"I saw the need and felt I could do it. When I told people, everybody said it wasn’t financially possible to hang on to animals until they’re adopted and I said, ‘Watch me!’ And I did it. And we’re still doing it 31 years later. It’s only been possible because I’ve been surrounded by great people."
She doesn’t regret a single moment, although she admits there have been more than a few pitfalls. The pandemic has not only complicated her cancer treatment; it’s made it difficult for the shelter to raise the money it needs to stay open.
"We live solely off of donations and fundraising events, so you can imagine what this year has been like for us," she says. "Some days we might get zero or $20 in the mail and running a no-kill shelter is very expensive. Everybody loves the concept, but it’s very expensive.
"The shelter is always full. As one animal gets adopted, another one comes in. Sometimes we find animals outside the door tied to a box or a kennel. We’ve had them tied to staff vehicles. We’ve even had them thrown in our big garbage container, so now we have to keep that locked."
The shelter was deemed an essential service and has remained open throughout the pandemic, with limits on the number of visitors, strict social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing, but Martinelli-Irvine has been trapped at home along with her husband of 14 years, Robert, and her two chihuahuas, Chica and JoJo.
Fuelled by her Christian faith and an irrepressible optimism, she is determined to win her battle with a disease that claims the lives of an estimated 175 women in Manitoba every year.
The Canadian Cancer Society says 27,400 women will be diagnosed with the disease this year — 25 per cent of all new cancer cases in women — and 5,100 won’t survive, which translates to an average of 14 fatalities every day.
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"I am doing well, thank God," Martinelli-Irvine gushes with unconcealed joy. "I’m so blessed. I’m proud to be recovering from breast cancer."
An ongoing fight with breast cancer has only made her more determined to keep the doors open at the shelter, which handles roughly 1,000 animals every year and faces an uphill battle to afford expensive medications and vet bills.
"I believe all animals have a right to life," she declares. "We’ve had animals come in that have been set on fire. We’ve had animals come in with broken limbs. The day they hit our door, they’ve won the lottery.
"Not even God can change the past, but we can certainly affect the future. And animals are so forgiving. We believe they are grateful and they know when they are safe and loved… It’s been hard. There have been lots of struggles, but at the end of the day you feel good, you know that you’ve made a difference."
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Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.
Without government funding, the no-kill Winnipeg Pet Rescue Shelter survives entirely on donations and fundraising events, which have been cancelled amid the coronavirus pandemic.
You can help out by visiting petrescueshelter.com and clicking the "donate" button.
You can choose to join their "Helping Heroes" program and make monthly donations through your bank account or credit card. Tax receipts are provided for all monetary donations. Or visit them at 3062 Portage Ave.
To help fund the fight against cancer, visit either cancercarefdn.mb.ca or CancerCare.mb.ca and click on "donate." All funds donated to CancerCare Manitoba Foundation remain in the province and support the cancer-fighting agency's internationally recognized team of health professionals.