Last Blog Post… Probably Ever

IMG_0032When things are taken away from you, it becomes very clear what you take for granted. Like eyebrows… man, those little guys did a great job!

Another thing that I’ve taken for granted is minor health anomalies. Now that I’ve had Hodgkin Lymphoma, I’m at a much greater risk for it coming back as a more aggressive form. I feel like every time I get chest congestion, wake up sweaty at night, or lose some weight, it will be impossible not to assume the cancer is back. I’ve become very used to watching my weight fluctuate with no real consequences. I’ve weighed as much as 240 pounds, and as little as 9 pounds 8 ounces, so this is something I’ll have to keep an eye on.

Now I’ve completed 12 successful treatments of chemotherapy in just under 6 months. I’m allowing myself to do a little bit more research on the type of cancer I had. While going through the diagnosis and early stages, I really didn’t want to know all the nitty gritty facts, but now I’m interested. Of all the research I’ve done, this stat really stood out to me. “In 2013, an estimated 9,290 cases of Hodgkin lymphoma were diagnosed in the United States, and 1,180 patients died from their disease. The median age at diagnosis was 38 years” (Cancer Network Home Journal of Oncology)

A little while ago, a friend of mine asked me if I am coming out of cancer treatments with some kind of life altering epiphany. After a bit of thought, I’ve decided that the answer is “yes”, but kind of the opposite of what some might think.

Before my diagnosis, and learning that my cancer could likely be cured, there was about a month and a half where only 1 thing was known. There is a very large, fast growing tumour in my chest. This knowledge lead to a recurring thought that couldn’t be avoided: “Sometimes cancer kills people… What if this kills me?.” Every time this question occurred, my mind always brought me back to the same answer. I found solace in believing that I’ve squeezed more love and joy into my 29 years that many hope to in their entire lives. Of course I was going to fight to my last breath, but if the cancer took me, I’d be able to go with no regrets having lived a great life. This is a thought that I’ll be able carry with me for the rest of my days.

Now that cancer treatments are done, I’ll focus my writing on all the other problems faced by white heterosexual males from upper-middle class two-parent families in Canada.

Just kidding, I’m done.

 

So it goes.

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Did That Actually Just Happen…

 

There are a few groups of people I’ve always found a little bit quirky: Engineers, Goalies, and Surgeons. The Engineers and Goalies in my life are going to get off easy today, because I’m going to share a story about the surgeon, and surgery resident who performed my second biopsy. This was the surgery that ultimately determined the type of cancer I had. It baffles me how I have this platform where I share experiences about this whole cancer thing, and I somehow haven’t shared this story. It might be because I almost have a hard time believing that it actually happened.

I want to preface this story by saying that I was lucid while all of it was happening. Because the tumour was pressing against my heart and lungs, the anesthesiologists were very worried about causing a heart attack or further interrupting my breathing, so I was wide awake for the whole surgery. To this day, I’m not certain that the surgeons knew how wide awake I was.

The biopsy took place in mid December because my first biopsy failed. They wanted to try taking cores of the biopsy with a large needle (which I was also awake for) rather than doing an open surgery. This decision was made to avoid the possible complications I mentioned before. The goal was to make an incision between my 3rd and 4th ribs and dig out enough of the tumour to get a good idea what we were dealing with. They had to be minimally invasive because too much swelling in the area could have caused an obstruction in the blood vessels feeding my heart or lungs. The doctors weren’t sugar coating things for me… this was sort of a big deal.

On the day of the surgery, I changed into my gown and got wheeled through the different wings of the hospital to the OR. There I met the surgeon and the surgery resident who were going to be performing the surgery. They took me into a large room with an additional 5-10 people who were going to be helping with the operation. The preparation for my surgery included covering my face with a sheet. They told me this was so that I wouldn’t have to see the incisions, and just incase I had to sneeze or something. They told me the operation would take about 25-35 minutes, to stay very still, and someone started with the local anaesthetic.

While the surgery was going on, I trying to be as still as I could. I was just listening to the nurses chit chatting, and the various sounds associated with the surgery (trying not to think about what was actually happening).

Suddenly, I felt something on my face. The doctor had to put down one of his instruments, and didn’t think to use the table. Instead he used the little indentation made by my brow ridge and my cheek.

Then it happened again a few minutes later!

I thought to myself “Ok, this is a little weird but it’s fine. If they are so focused on the surgery that they’re using my face as a table, I’m OK with it”

More chit chatting, more buzzing and sizzling sounds coming from the surgical instruments

Then they started reefing on my ribs from the inside. Maybe they were trying to spread them so they could get in there, but the force was almost lifting my upper body off the table. I guess the surgeon needed a little more leverage, so he placed a hand on my covered face, and used it as a counterforce to pull on my ribs! My face was covered by the sheet, but my eyes were wide open and my face was being smushed between the surgeon’s free hand and the operating table!

Now I’m starting to think this probably isn’t normal. Maybe they’re used to their patients being totally unconscious for this surgery and they just forgot I was awake… I started thinking about ways to let them know that I’m awake and listening to and feeling everything they do. A little motion of my head probably won’t do the trick, I’m sure unconscious people do that all the time. I’ve got to ask them a question.

My first thought was to ask “so how much time’s left, guys?”, but I didn’t want them to feel rushed! I want them to take their time and feel no time constraints or pressures at all. Maybe “so is it normal for your patients to be awake on the operating table like this?”, but then I didn’t want them to feel awkward about using my face as part of their rib-crowbar.

Just as I was thinking about how to formulate a completely inconsequential question I heard the resident say “This part always makes me nervous, do you want to do it?”

The surgeon responded nonchalantly “no, you should do it”

 

So there I am lying half naked on the operating table, surrounded by people. There are two dudes digging around in my chest cavity, and I for some reason feel self conscious because I’m eves-dropping on a conversation I shouldn’t be hearing. On top of that the surgical resident is about to do something that “makes him nervous”…

This is when the anesthesiologist bailed me out, at least that’s how I perceived it. He said “His heart rate is elevating, Andrew are you feeling OK”.

“Yeah, I’m feeling great, but I could use a sedative or something to calm me down”

That’s when I learned why so many people get addicted to Hydromorphone… the next hour or so was absolutely delightful, and the surgery turned out to be a success.

The moral of the story: Opiates fix everything.

LRG_DSC07840The last month hasn’t been all doom and gloom. Amanda and I took a road trip to Colorado, and we also spent a week in Arizona!

On Friday I will be having my second last treatment!

So it goes.

BACK OFF, B!&*H!

When chemo was about to start, I knew I was lying to myself when I said I’d be OK with letting people help me all the time. Letting people help me, or asking for help when I need it hasn’t been as easy as I thought it would be. I know that people genuinely want to help, and they feel good when they do. But deep down, there is this stupid prideful man that wants to do it all on his own.

However, my Mother in Law, Lillian, is coming for another visit and we’ve come up with a sort of code that addresses this problem seamlessly. Lil will always offer to take over a task, it’s in her DNA, so we’ve developed a way for me to maintain my independence without making it weird.

Let me set the stage for you…

*Andrew is doing some dishes*

Lil: I can do those dishes. You’ve been up all day, do you want to take a nap?

Andrew: I’ll finish up and then go rest.

Lil: Really, I don’t mind.

Andrew: BACK OFF, BITCH!!

*End Scene*

This way I get to subtly maintain my independence, and no one has to know that the “stupid prideful man” was rearing his ugly head.

 

I’ve started playing a new game every morning, it’s called “What’s causing my headache today?”.

Every Tuesday after chemo I start injecting myself with bone marrow stimulants for 5 days to boost my immune system. While they’re doing wonders for my white blood cell count (I can go to public places to watch Jets games), they wreak havoc on the other systems in my body. As an added bonus, I wake up with a mystery headache every morning. Some people like to solve the morning crossword, I wouldn’t trade it for my morning headache.

First I try drinking a Litre of water, sometimes that does the trick. I can always tell when the distribution of water in my body is off because my muscles swell like crazy… which normally I wouldn’t mind, except that it only adds to the pain when I need to ask my wife to open a jar for me.

Hello, Stupid Prideful Man…

If the water doesn’t do it, I’ll try the natural sugars in an apple or an orange. I’m not a doctor, in fact I have a pretty terrible understanding of what is actually happening to my body; but it seems possible to me that I’m metabolizing more sugars by processing the chemo and stimulating my bone marrow. So maybe eating something high in natural sugar will solve the mystery headache?

Spoiler, the fruit has never worked…

Normally by this time I’m getting pretty fed up, so I have a cup of coffee… and to the detriment of deductive reasoning, I usually wash a couple Tylenol down with the coffee. Soooo this usually solves the problem, and teaches me nothing. I guess I’ll have to ride the high of my earth shattering results from my “nausea study” from 2 posts ago.

So it goes.

 

Rollercoaster Couple Weeks

Here are 3 of my recent Google searches and their dates:

March 26th: Best single player strategy games for XBox One

March 29th: Philippines weather in May

April 7th: Best Netflix series you can half pay attention to.

On March 28th I had my first follow-up PET scan. A PET scan is unique because it measures the metabolism of all the cells in the body. Lymphoma cells have a VERY high metabolism, so they show up very well on the scan. This is the best way to detect how well the chemotherapy is working. From the start we had been told that there is a possibility of shortening treatment, and we had our fingers crossed for good news.

The next day, Amanda and I went in to get the results of my PET scan, but we weren’t seeing my normal doctor. He came in, made is introduction and said “I have very good news, you are in complete remission”…

We were silent

“The test was unable to detect any cancer cells in your body”…

I remember looking at Amanda and her suspicious face was asking “so what’s this dude’s angle?”.

English was not this doctor’s first language, and we made him say synonyms of “you’re cancer free” for probably 5 or 10 minutes before it started to sink in.

“The metabolism of the tumour is no different than the background cells”, “the chemotherapy treatment seems to have destroyed the cancer cells”, etc.

“So I’m cancer free?” we asked, still in complete shock.

“Yes, you’re cancer free” the doctor would answer.

The doctor then proceeded to say that it is likely that they would shorten the number of chemotherapy treatments! I would have to do the next one to be safe, but beyond that he wasn’t sure, I would have to follow up with my doctor and I should wait for a phone call.

Amanda and I were over the moon! I started planning on going to the gym to get back into shape, we start talking about having a baby again, maybe going on a trip to the Philippines. We always knew that shortening my treatments was a possibility, and we were just waiting to find out by how much!

Then on Friday I got the call from the Head Nurse that I’d been waiting for. This is where I find out how much they’re going to shorten my treatments by.

She said “the doctor has decided to proceed with the full course of treatments”

After a few seconds I asked “but isn’t all the cancer gone?”

“Yes, but there is no evidence to suggest that ending treatment early couldn’t increase the chances of recurrence”

“Wow, I was really hoping that they were going to cut off some treatments”

“So was I”, she responded.

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Since the first treatment, I never really experienced the cancer, all the negativity has been coming from the chemo. So as great as it is to be cancer free, it really doesn’t change the experience of this whole process. I’m of course totally committed to continue treatment if it has any chance of reducing the possibility of the cancer coming back, but I think it was a little irresponsible of the medical team to dangle the possibility of shortening treatments in front of me, only to take it away. I’m still infinitely grateful that the doctors have been able to treat the tumour in my body that would have otherwise killed me… but I wanted to be cancer free AND go to the Phillipines 😀

So it goes.

Side Effects are Weird… Gained 10 lbs in a Morning

I have great news, I think I’ve discovered the cure for Chemotherapy induced nausea! Don’t spread the word too much just yet, because I want to get my findings published. Directions are as follows.

  1. Lie motionless in the dark for 5 days
  2. Nausea is gone!

You’re welcome.

In addition to making the scientific discovery I just mentioned, I am getting a lot better at reading my body. I’m starting to pick up on cues that tell me all sorts of things about how this cycle is going to go, including when my “bad days” are coming to an end. This indicator comes from, of course, Netflix.

Picture this:

I’m lying in bed, feeling like I’m experiencing my first REAL hangover (if you are under the age of 27 and you think you’ve experienced a hangover… you’re sadly mistaken). Netflix is panting from overuse on my laptop. My chins beginning to cascade down one another, and there’s permanent stain on my shirt from my daily beet and kale juice. One episode ends, and the fateful “Next Episode Will Begin in 5 Seconds” button comes up. I subconsciously reach for the mouse pad, and it hits me. Awwwh Yeaaah, the good days are coming!

Normally, in the middle of my bad days, moving my arm in exchange for 5 seconds of entertainment is NEVER worth it. But when my psyche starts to calculate that motion is “no big deal” that’s when I know the good stuff is coming.

tobey maguire shirtless 2

I’ve been giving myself daily injections to stimulate my bone marrow’s production of White Blood Cells, and the side effects have been really weird. Yesterday Morning I gave myself an injection, and by about 11am I looked like Peter Parker the morning after he got bit by the radioactive spider. The muscles of my chest and arms were sore, and weirdly big… I had do avoid pushing doors open at the risk of tearing my shirt (I might save a couple syringes for beach season this year). When I weighed myself that evening, I was literally 10lbs heavier than I was that morning. So, I guess my body is starting to retain water like crazy… but that doesn’t explain the dehydration migrane I had last night…

Have you ever watched a kitten chase a lazer? That’s how it feels watching my body react to all these medications.

So it goes.

 

 

Fantastic News… Nothing Remarkable has Happened!

Can you think of a less gripping title? God, I’m a terrible Millennial.

I started writing this blog as a form of therapy, and have been truly flattered by how many people just outright give a shit about how things are going. It’s a novel feeling to post to social media without the perceived necessity to get “views”, or “likes” etc. Though, it is amazing how deep the instinct is to only write about the funny stories or the gory details, but the fact that nothing “big” has happened this treatment is pretty awesome.

I am still having a treatment every two week, with one good week and one bad week. My good weeks haven’t changed, and they’ve been what keep me going. I’m playing basketball and practicing with my volleyball team, spending time with friends, and doing “normal” stuff with Amanda. Sadly, my bad week has gotten a lot worse. I’ve now tried about everything to reduce the nausea, but NOTHING seems to be able to touch it. Prescription drugs, vitamins, Cannabis, chews/candies, even Aromatherapy. I get to this point where I’m lying in bed, and I feel like if I move any part of my body I’m going to vomit… surprisingly this happens regardless of whether my room smells like Lemongrass.

flash-furniture-1-300x298

Here is another picture of a stool. It is soft… that’s nice. It still looks REALLY uncomfortable, but it has wheels making it easy to move. A soft but uncomfortable stool that is easy to move is certainly an improvement on my last stool update, which was made of Metamorphic rock.

Moving on.

I’m now giving myself daily injections to promote White Blood Cell (WBC) production in my body. The big word I learned last month was “Neutrophil”. This is a type of WBC that fights off infections and illness. A normal Neutrophil level is between 1.8 and 5.4; mine is 0.5. This means no more Jets games. The needles are surprisingly painless, and I haven’t had any of the nasty side effects, which include “Bone Pain”… i’ve got to say, part of me is curious what that would feel like.

For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that I’m very competitive. I’ve spent my whole life competing in sport, and that’s something I really miss. I’ve found myself losing interest in Yoga (because my place doesn’t have a scoreboard), so a friend of mine has offered to let me join his online gaming team… now I’m starting to sound like a Millennial! Possibly more to come on that.

So it goes.

 

NOW The Worst Is Over… We Hope

At the start of my last treatment (4th of 12), I really thought we had things dialed in. Sure, things have gotten progressively harder but I genuinely thought that I’d had my last surprise… so naive… so pathalogically optimistic. My Timmy’s Roll Up The Rim said “Please Try Again”. This turned out to be strangely foretelling as I was literally trying it AGAIN about an hour later.

The treatment began how it always had. My parents and I arrived at the scheduled time to the Cancer Care building near the Health Sciences Center. We checked in, sat on the vinyl Lay-Z-Boy and got an IV in my forearm. The nurses always compliment me on my veins, I blush, and these ones ALWAYS hit the vein on the first try. They start me on a saline solution for 15 minutes or so to get my fluids up, then they bring out the chemotherapy drugs.

2 nurses always bring the drugs together. One spells out my name and double checks my birthday while the other is confirming against the doctors rec., then they read out the name and quantity of each drug while the other nurse has her eyes glued to her forms. Every time this happens, I can’t help but think about what unfortunate event must have lead to this extra precaution.

A nurse injects the first drug of four with a syringe over 15 minutes. This one is the worst because it looks like the juice that’s leftover in a jar a maraschino cherries. Watching this artificial looking red fluid trickling into my veins is really unnerving.

The next drug is also injected with a syringe, but this one’s clear… so for some reason it doesn’t bother me as much. Then the Third and Fourth are dripped in through the IV, one after another, over the course of 3 hours or so.

Half way through my last bag I started to feel a little bit of a chill. Little did I know, this was the first sign that my body was about to go into complete shock.

That little chill got worse and I started shivering. Before long I felt like I was 16 again, at an alpine ski race at the top of a hill in -45 degree weather, wearing one of those skimpy little downhill suits.

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I was shivering uncontrollably to the point where it almost felt like a seizure. My mom kept on stacking warm blankets over my body and around my head in an attempt to help my body warm up. But what happens when your body’s core temperature drops? Automatically you have to pee, right!? It takes a lot of energy for your body to try and keep fluid warm, so the reflex is to get rid of it.

Yes… I find myself in ANOTHER peeing dilemma.

Have you ever been in bed or in a sleeping bag, already kind of cold, then you have to pee? You start bartering with yourself. Maybe it will pass… maybe I’ll fall back asleep… Hah, yeah right.

So imagine this feeling, except infinitely worse because every muscle in your body is constantly contracting and relaxing 1000 Hertz. It’s like if you had to pee, and there is a classroom of 6 year olds punching you in your lower abdomen.

The Nurse asked “Is there any way you can wait 15-30 minutes for the medication to kick in”

Nope.

We peel off a stack of 10-15 hospital blankets (which is the equivalent of about 3 normal blankets), unplug the IV tower and slowly wheel it into the bathroom. No surprise, being in the middle of a full-body medical reaction, I couldn’t go into the bathroom alone, so my Dad came in with me.

For him, it probably didn’t seem like that long ago he was standing over me and encouraging me to pee… for me it felt pretty foreign.

So, we got that done, slowly walked back to my Lay-Z-Boy and sat back down. That’s when I felt the Timmy’s offering to let me “Try it Again”. As it turns out, waiting 15-30 minutes for the medication to kick in was probably the better option.

I’ll fast forward the next two hours or so; but I will say that the worst (and somehow the best) feeling of this entire process has been seeing my parents looking down on me, tears streaming down their face, and knowing that they would switch places with me in an instant if they could. I couldn’t imagine going through this alone, and I am so lucky that I don’t have to.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again. I genuinely believe that It’s harder to watch someone fight cancer than it is to do it yourself.

Eventually the drugs started to kick in, my wife left work early to come join in the standing and crying, and I made it home feeling like I’d just been hit by a train.

The next day the heavy artillery arrived from London Ontario, Amanda’s Mom Lillian. She was like one of those old school Wall Street investors talking on 15 phones at once, except the phones were frying pans, and profits were meals in our freezer.

Then the rest of Amanda’s family arrived for 5 of my “good days”, we had a lot of fun, tonnes of laughs, and a welcome distraction from what’s up next.

Now that the nurses know that my body may go into shock if we go through the same routine as last time, they are going to be giving me a steroid along with my medications. This will ensure that what I went through last treatment won’t happen again.

Now it’s fair to say that I’ve had my last surprise… right?

So it goes.