Nov 8, 2010

Lessons in living: One person's battle with cancer

I wrote this back in the summer for beingwell magazine, but it was just posted to the Cancer Society "fight back" website.

Some words can conjure up an array of powerful imagery and frightening thoughts, if we allow them to. One fearful word can beget the next until our minds play out the worst possible scenario: Cancer, major surgery, chemotherapy, death.

But, used effectively, words can also be a source of inspiration and strength: cancer, adversity, character defining, perseverance, victory.

Really, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Still, sitting in the cancer clinic at Southlake Regional Health Centre listening to the constant drip of my chemotherapy cocktail and the hum of the IV machine, I struggle to concentrate on the second set of words rather than the first. And I can’t help but wonder when I look around at the other people receiving treatment what’s going through their minds.

There’s a bond between those of us having to go through chemo and although it’s an unspoken one — in fact, I barely speak at all while in the chair — I can certainly feel it.

So I find myself trying to read their faces and analyze their body language in the hope they may give me some perspective on what words they’re choosing to listen to.

As tough as the physical aspect of cancer treatment is, the mental battle may be even worse. And this year has been a war for me.

When 2010 began, things were going very well for me and I honestly had no idea what was looming on the horizon. I was preparing to run another half-marathon and my personal training business was busy. I felt incredibly healthy and optimistic about what the New Year would bring.

But a couple weeks later my world was rocked. At 36, I was staring at my own mortality.

It was fate that brought me to the doctor’s office.

While volunteering with the Canadian Cancer Society, I had the opportunity to spend time listening to some moving stories of cancer survivors.

Almost without exception, they expressed regret over not having seen their doctor earlier, when they first noticed changes in their health.

Even though I was experiencing only mild symptoms, certainly nothing that was affecting my life in any way or would make me think cancer likely, I decided, as the cliché goes, it was better to be safe than sorry.

A good lesson: If I’d waited until the symptoms were becoming problematic, it would have most likely been too late.

When you hear the phrase colon cancer, you forget the embarrassment — or what seemed like that at the time — of having a colonoscopy.

Another lesson: How quickly pride can change to humility.

The next few weeks, my schedule was filled with a dizzying number of appointments at the hospital, for CT scans and MRIs, blood work and ultrasounds.

After receiving the wonderful news the cancer hadn’t metastasized to any major organs, I underwent surgery on Feb. 3 to have a section of my large intestine and a number of lymph nodes removed.

After a four-and-a-half-hour surgery, I spent the better part of the next five days in a hospital bed. I took an occasional gruelling walk up and down the hall; it felt like I was climbing a mountain.

In retrospect, the post-surgery recovery was the most humbling part of this whole process for me, perhaps the most humbling period of my entire life.

I had always been super-active and had worked for more than a decade as a personal trainer but during recovery, I was almost entirely dependent upon the care of the medical staff at the hospital. I couldn’t even roll over without their help.

The following weeks at home weren’t much easier. Even if I had wanted to disobey the medical staff by working out, I don’t think my body would have been capable. What I’m left with from the experience is a sizable scar, a shorter intestine and the lifelong memory of complete and utter weakness in my body.

A third lesson: We discover much about ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable.

Following surgery, I learned the cancer had spread to at least one lymph node and I would need chemotherapy.

As disappointing as the news was, it didn’t come as a total shock. My surgeon had been forthright with me from day one and I knew it was a distinct possibility.

I also learned Lesson 4: Self-pity only drains away energy that should be used to fight the good fight.

In the third week of March, I began the next chapter in the book I call Jim Kicks the Hell Out of Cancer. (Maybe the title gives away the ending a bit, but I’m not much of a suspense writer and it helps me stay optimistic.)

I won’t lie and say it has been easy. The nausea is horrible and carrying a chemo pump in my pocket is no fun. But I see the way it can wipe some people out, so I think I’ve got it pretty good.

I’m grateful there has been no travel for me through any of this. With the number of trips to the hospital I’ve made, it’s hard to imagine driving 50 km or more each time instead of the 4 km I do.

So here I am, part way through my 12 chemo treatments, spending hours and hours at the hospital, writing, watching and thinking.

One word has dominated my thoughts: Life. I’m only just beginning to grasp its magnitude. What does it mean to you? In the end, it doesn’t amount to anything but a word if you don’t act upon it and make the most of yours.

This is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned: Life is not about the things that happen to you, it’s about the things that you make happen.

Cancer has changed my outlook and my priorities and I’ve grown in many positive ways as a result. But cancer doesn’t define who you are as a person. Seven-inch scars on your body don’t speak to the type of character you possess. Six months of chemotherapy can’t show people what your values are. But how you deal with and respond to adversity tells the world everything about you.

So when my treatment is finished, will I go back to training to run half-marathons? Absolutely not — that would be too easy! It’s time to move onto bigger challenges, such as ultra-marathons. Compared to past several months, running 80 plus km will seem like a leisurely stroll.