I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in the spring of 2011.
I had had a couple of bad days of bleeding around February or March of that year, which was not exactly unusual for me but was bad enough to finally prompt me to visit a walk-in clinic for the problem.
The doctor there ordered a colonoscopy. That first scope revealed a small polyp in my middle colon and a much larger one, which in my memory looks like a pinky finger, in my cecum. These were not necessarily bad news, but they needed to be excised, and it turns out that the cecum is a particularly difficult place to work, even for specialists, as the bowel wall there is very thin.
Over the course of the next several months I had several more colonoscopies done – one to remove the smaller polyp and to biopsy the larger one, one to remove the larger one, and a couple just to have a look. I had tissue sent off to labs for study to determine whether I was in danger of developing cancer or not.
I recall feeling very little in the way of emotional reaction during that time. Even when I received confirmation that there were definite precancerous and possible cancerous cells in my biopsies, I was slow to react. I felt it was important that I tell my family, but even my closest friends remained in the dark for a long while.
One person was a sort-of exception to that: at the time, I was internet-close and real-life-good friends with a girl I met in theatre school. I wasn’t sure what to tell her, as she was in Ontario visiting people and I didn’t want to ruin her visit, but I finally decided I needed to tell her before I saw her. She was, as friends often are, very supportive and slightly astonished that I had held out on telling her.
In the meantime, I was struggling to schedule a surgery with which I was comfortable. I had been told by my surgeon that I would lose most of my bowel and that he would not be doing a laparoscopic procedure because I weighed 395 pounds. I was not happy with his answers, and I asked a number of people whether I had other options.
One person, who had worked in a local surgical unit at one point, mentioned that they would not allow my surgeon to perform this procedure. They helped me identify another surgeon who might be better suited.
It turns out that there are a cluster of extremely specialized physicians in Hamilton. I got a referral to them, and wound up meeting with Dr. Shawn Forbes. He said similar things about my weight and the difficulty of the procedure as well as suggesting that I would lose a significant amount of bowel. But he didn’t do it lightly, and he was much more responsive and flexible when I showed my distress, and I opted to request that he perform my surgery. He agreed.
My procedure was performed on September 13th, 2011. They took a big chunk out of me and stapled the 6″ cut closed. I spent the next few days mostly in a hospital bed sitting on a diaper and learning to forego basic dignity in favour of practical survival. They gave me a morphine drip with a button, which I barely used, and which did little to assuage my pain when I did use it. They put a catheter in, and after a few days watching the yellow liquid nearly overflow the cannister and yellow crystals grow on my bits, I was quite ready to have it out.
I saw my mom and dad quite a lot those few days, but it felt like no time at all. I woke up at 6am, sweating, and I usually moved to the chair as soon as I could. I read, I hummed, I tried to use my time creatively and productively, but in the end I was bored, and being bored meant being profoundly unhappy. They were long days. I couldn’t get to the end of them soon enough.
The doc came to visit me once a day, and at first I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say to him. By the second visit, I was begging him to let me go, to take the catheter out, to let me go. He took the catheter out on the third day I was in the room, and I was ecstatic. And by the next day he was talking about letting me go home. I was ready. I was so very ready. I had made my promises to myself – I would lose weight, I would stop wasting my life, I would fix things.
I got home and I was on the go right away. My parents warned me not to lift things, that I was putting myself in danger, that I would get a hernia. I didn’t know what a hernia was, as it turns out, but I was pretty sure I would be fine. On my first follow-up with the doc, my mom asked him how much effort was safe. Five pounds, he said, which is what she had said to me when telling me off for carrying five bags of groceries up the stairs to my apartment.
So I scaled back. I lay on my side on a box spring and mattress while my two parents slept in my little bed. I read a lot. My dad watched golf. I played computer games. I did a little writing.
At six weeks, I started to do the math on my finances, and it wasn’t good. I figured I was going to be somewhere around five grand short of what I’d planned for, and I’d spent maybe another three thousand or so on various accoutrements – a lazy boy, a big screen tv, an Xbox 360. These were big expenses, but I told myself that I would go crazy alone in my house, so they would pay for themselves in that respect.
Thing is, I wasn’t alone for most of it. My dad was there until mid-October, and I was back at work in mid-November.
I’m a computer programmer, so I was probably physically ready to go back two or three weeks after I had surgery. Certainly I was able to do the physical tasks required by then. But I think maybe taking the longer time gave me a little more room to grow restless, and I think maybe that was a good thing for me. I hated that job for a long time; kind-of missing it was novel, and probably important for the remaining year I kept at it.
And then I was back at work. My eating habits were a little better, and I had dropped about 30 pounds. I felt a little better. I started to lift weights after work. For the first time in my life, I dreamed not simply of being a regular weight, but of having a six pack.
The food habits fell off again, and I found myself seeking solutions to my problems. I took advantage of my employer’s EAP and contacted a dietitian, who told me that I was planning correctly, and a counsellor, who didn’t tell me much of anything. I fell back into the depression that had gripped me prior to my diagnosis.
The critical moment, for me, came in April of 2012. I wanted to visit the girl I mentioned. I’d decided that I wanted to tell her that I wanted to have a relationship, and she was in an interesting place in Newfoundland, so visiting her would at the very least give me a chance to see that place. But when it came time for me to go, I found myself in a black depression, unable to escape suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t inflict that on a girl I care so much for. I cancelled my trip.
And then I got a reference to a psychiatrist. He gave me some pills. They cured me, for certain values of “cured”.
The girl came to visit, and I told her how I felt. She gave me a cautious “yes”, and we’ve been together since then.
But I had cancer, and as someone mentioned recently, that didn’t scare me into doing the right things. I still overeat. I still don’t get enough exercise. I think at one point I figured I’d just die early and it would be fine because I was wasting my life.
But now I’m not wasting it, and still I’m not able to fix everything. I keep trying. I have set goals. I have set deadlines. I have given myself abundant reasons to live.
Two years ago I had cancer. I survived it; hell, it barely feels like I ever had it. But two years on, I’m still trying to live in a way that justifies surviving that experience. All I’ve really learned in the time between is that nothing, not even an existential threat, not even love, not even the end of mental illness, can fix me.
It turns out I have to fix myself. I really didn’t want to be responsible for that; I thought if I was not depressed, if I had a life-changing experience, if I found love, it would just take care of itself. It doesn’t. It won’t. So I’m gonna have to fix myself. It’s going to be hard, and I have repeatedly proven myself incompetent at the task.
But I don’t have cancer, and I haven’t for two full years, and those years have been full of happinesses I wouldn’t have dreamed of at the outset. It’s easy to be grateful for that.