At 41 years old, I was relatively young, healthy, and enjoying time with my young family. My children were 5 and 8 years old. In the spring of 2022 we were planning our next adventures: a trip to Disneyland and camping trips throughout Alberta.
In late April I experienced bloody stools, an alarming symptom which I knew not to ignore. With hindsight, I can also say I was more fatigued than before, which I downplayed as a sign of ‘getting older’ in early middle age. I was regularly choosing to go for walks when previously I enjoyed intense strength workouts. I also had experienced some periodic abdominal discomfort which I assumed was related to career and family stress.
I went to see my family doctor a few days after the bleeding, and after a brief exam she recommended a colonoscopy. However, she warned that someone of my age could possibly wait for 6-8 months on the public queue. In the meantime, I discussed my options with my family and decided the best thing would be to contact a private clinic to arrange for a virtual colonoscopy, a diagnostic procedure that is somewhat similar to a colonoscopy that uses imaging equipment. I underwent the procedure in early June.
I was working from home and in the middle of a conference call when my family doctor called me with the bad news that the scan had found a mass in my colon, and she said that it was likely a small, treatable form of cancer. Hearing the c-word was like being hit with a ton of bricks. I remember that day as the worst of my life, compounded by the fact that my wife Jasmine, a junior high school teacher, was out of town on a field trip and would not be home until the evening to be with me.
At that point, I was forced to confront the fact that the disease could be terminal because I could not be sure how widespread the cancer was. In the absence of information, my mind generated some strange thoughts that bounced between wildly optimistic and gloomily pessimistic. In one moment, I told my employer that I would likely return to work within a week or two. At another moment, I reflected on the house projects I had to complete before I died because nobody else would be there to finish them after I was gone. My journey through cancer treatment had a turbulent beginning.
After a CT scan of my abdomen less than a week after the first scan, it became clear that the cancer was confined to a single organ. With this good news, I strengthened my resolve that I could overcome this disease and live a normal life span. To their credit, the medical professionals snapped into action soon after it became clear that my condition was serious. My family doctor was an excellent advocate, and a colorectal surgeon she contacted on my behalf arranged a colonoscopy three weeks later and admitted me to hospital for surgery a few days after that.
I was admitted to the Royal Alexandra Hospital in late June for surgery. While there, I encountered disbelief from medical professionals that I could be stricken with colon cancer at my age. Even the anesthesiologist in the surgery room assumed I was there for ulcerative colitis and was shocked that a ‘young guy’ would be in this position because of colon cancer.
Luckily, the surgery went superbly: the surgical team used laparoscopic instruments, minimizing scarring and speeding recovery. From what they could tell, all of the diseased tissue was removed. I was left with most of my colon intact and there was no need for a colostomy bag – my body would function much as it did before. Despite the well-documented problems with the Canadian medical system, there are some truly brilliant healers working within it. Although I was shuffled between various professionals during my journey, I didn’t feel there was anyone who didn’t do their very best to help get me through to the other side cancer-free.
I was told I would need adjuvant (post-surgery) chemotherapy in order to eliminate any remaining cancer cells and maximize the odds that the cancer would not return. Treatment began in early August at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. I noticed right away that it did not have the chaotic, institutional feel of a typical public hospital. It had a soothing atmosphere despite the grim reason for its existence. I sometimes felt like one of only a few patients there under the age of 50 – most looked as though they were at retirement age or beyond.
After the first infusion of medication on the 12-week chemotherapy regime I experienced strange side effects: extreme cold sensitivity, neuropathy, and something called “first bite syndrome”: a shooting pain in the jaw that dissipates if you continue eating. On chemotherapy you learn to take the side effects if it means improved odds of survival. I was forced to take a two-week break from chemotherapy halfway through the regimen due to a spike in my liver enzymes. However, after a reduction in my dosage I was able to complete the treatment.
One issue I found difficult to grapple with during this long journey was the fact that I was not guaranteed a happy ending. Soon after my surgery, the chief surgeon said that my diagnosis was stage 3b colon cancer, and she gave me a percentage that represented my likelihood of disease-free survival after five years, based on the long-term outcomes of others with my diagnosis. It was a number well above 50% but still not as close to 100% as I would have liked. Even though the odds were in my favour, it was difficult to reckon with probability, especially as it related to my survival. A friend of mine noted that, “it must be hard when someone puts a number on your life”. This oversimplifies but basically captures the notion.
Two things helped me: the first was ‘negotiating with the number’. I met a friend of a friend who had exactly the same diagnosis 10 years earlier, and was given starkly worse odds than I was. Yet he recovered fully and did not experience a recurrence. I reasoned that even the prognosis I received was out of date and likely more favourable due to the time lag involved in collecting data and the fact that treatments and outcomes improve every year.
It also helped me to know that there were actions within my control that could improve my outcome: diet, exercise, and attitude. I joined a program called the Alberta Cancer Exercise program in Edmonton. I and other cancer survivors were given use of a facility to work out and a customized workout plan created by health professionals. It made me feel like my ‘old self’ again because pushing my body’s limits was something I used to enjoy. Knowing that it could help me survive was a powerful motivating factor. I sincerely believe that attitude can affect outcomes. If you believe you will be a survivor, it will improve your odds.
Nobody who goes through cancer diagnosis, treatment, and survival can say that they were completely unscathed mentally. The fear, anguish and uncertainty of having a potentially life-threatening disease means it is not an ordeal anyone can face alone. Fortunately, my wife Jasmine has been the best caregiver I could hope for. In the beginning she was as devastated as I was, shedding tears and wondering what the future held. However, at a certain point she simply decided that everything was going to be all right, and she became the rock of support I needed. We even managed to make good memories watching movies and playing chess in the hospital as I awaited my surgery. My spirits were given an enormous boost when my eight-year-old son initiated a lemonade stand fundraiser that raised over $2,400 for the Alberta Cancer Foundation, with many friends and family coming by to wish me well. I was lucky enough to find a psychologist trained in treating cancer patients who helped me frame my issue in the best light and maintain my sense of determination and a positive outlook.
I used to wonder how I would react if a family member, friend or colleague told me they had just received a devastating diagnosis. If we’re being honest, it’s something a lot of people would want to run from, not knowing what to say or do. What helped me most were the kind messages I received from friends and family, simply asking how I was doing, listening with genuine interest and giving me their best wishes. Even though it didn’t change the circumstances, these interactions helped me combat the isolation of cancer.
In the days following my diagnosis in June 2022, my life felt like a bad dream. I was very unfortunate to have such a serious diagnosis but through the assistance of family, friends, and medical practitioners, almost everything after that has gone my way. I finished treatment in November 2022 and I feel I have regained close to 100% of my energy. A CT scan of my chest, abdomen and pelvis on December 23rd showed no evidence of disease. I am cancer free. The probability of a recurrence is greater than zero, but I believe that for me it is low. I have chosen the attitude that I am a cancer survivor – not a victim – because it is very difficult to live with a sense of death lurking over your shoulder.
I am still a believer that we should have a public health care system that provides universal care for everyone. However, the reality can be quite different. Being unable to access quality care when needed can quite literally cost you your life. When you are in the midst of a life threatening health crisis, you have more at stake in the functioning of the health care system than you do when you are in good health. I was privileged to be able to afford to pay for a diagnostic scan, but not everyone would be able to, which is an injustice we must fix.
Although we had to postpone our Disneyland trip to 2023, as a family we still made it out for a few camping trips that season, including one less than a month after my surgery. It’s important not to let cancer stop you from living the life you want: not necessarily because your life might be cut short, but because making the most of your time on earth is important, whether you have struggled with this terrible disease or not.