Saturday, 29 November 2014

Changing personal image - being a big boy

It's funny, throughout this entire ordeal I've only cried once. It was not when they told me I had stage 4 cancer, it was not when I couldn't talk because my tongue was so dry it was stuck to my cheek, it was the first time they came and changed my flange on my colostomy and explained that I will be glueing a ring to my belly a couple of times a week and strapping a bag to it to collect my poop.

Looking down at this open wound in my gut I was devastated at how I now looked. I spend a great deal of time at gyms and that involves changing and showering in group environments. I still haven't been to the gym and can't imagine how I'm going to deal with that. I wasn't overly happy with how I looked anyway, so now, walking around with a poop bag is another shot to the ego I'm not sure I'm ready for. I've done some reading online and it sounds like one popular solution is the Stealth Belt. This clever contraption goes around your waist and you tuck your bag inside of it. This holds the bag more secure and also hides it should your shirt ride up. 

I'm almost certain that I will get a few comments telling me it's ok and that it's a common reaction but it's really hard to deal with. A major part of my life is now monitoring body functions that were never given a second thought. Do I have my repair kit? Am I full? Blah blah blah.  

This is one of the first times I've ever written about things being bad but I want to make sure this entire process is documented honestly. It's not all sunshine and rainbows. I have been EXTREMELY lucky in many regards, but in this area I'm still bummed. I know it will get easier and become more of a non-issue but for now it still really sucks. 

However, there are definitely some positives to this bag that I can't deny. While I have it, I won't have to make that Sophie's choice of using a public restroom for a #2 or holding it and getting a belly ache. Especially at a hockey game. What is wrong with you fellas? Just because you're at a hockey game aim and decency go right out the window? GROSS! Also, when it comes to it I won't need to worry about unexpected bathroom breaks during a triathlon. Nope, this minute saver strapped to my belly might just be the difference between qualifying for Kona or not. Haha, not really, I'm still fat and slow.

Hopefully you're not bummed out or feeling sorry for me. I'm still in a great place and eager to get this fight started. December 4th I have a biopsy look at some suspicious lymph nodes in my belly and see if they're cancerous (they will be). After that they'll read the results and call us in for our attack plan. I'll let you know what they say! 

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Waiting and staying positive

Without a doubt the hardest part of this entire thing is the waiting. That and the internet. And the more time you have to wait, the more time there is to search the internet.

One of the first tweets I sent out after I found out I had cancer was, "Great, now WebMD is trolling me. They just DMed me 'Told you it was cancer'." This was a nod to the fact that typing almost any symptoms into the internet comes back with the result that you have some kind of debilitating or terminal illness, when, in truth, you probably have a splinter or a headache. So now imagine you HAVE one of those nasty illnesses. At this point the internet becomes an endless supply of hope and despair depending on which link you click.

When I left the hospital I went home knowing only a few things. I had a large tumor in my colon that was removed and I had two tumors on my liver. They also suspected that I had some cancer in my lymph nodes as that's the method of travel from the colon to the liver. A few days after getting home the phone rang and it was my surgeon. She had some results to give us about the tumor. Voice quaking and hands shaking I dictated to Kim what the surgeon was telling me and she hurriedly jotted down everything. The doctor told me I had what is called Adenocarcinoma. This alone was enough to make my legs go wobbly. What's hilarious is that I had no idea what Adenocarcinoma was, it just sounded SO MUCH scarier than cancer. She told us that the tumor she had removed was completely contained and that the tissue on either side of the tumor was completely clear meaning she had removed the entire thing. She had taken 45 lymph nodes from the area and all 45 came back positive for cancer.

After a quick google session we discovered that Adenocarcinoma is the cancer that occurs 95% of the time in colon cancer. This was great because that's where the bulk of research and treatment have been directed. The other 5% seem to be angry alien cancers where they throw some chemicals at you and hope to hell that they work.

So after the phone call Kim and I sat on the couch, shaking, and reviewed what we had just been told. After letting our heads clear we realized it was an awesome phone call. We found out 3 things we already knew: I had colon cancer, it was in my lymph nodes and liver and that was that. The NEW info was that I had the common cancer and that the tumor they took out was contained and completely removed. It was actually just a bunch of good news. This is the best skill we have. Seeking and finding the positive in every situation.

I get some really funny looks when I say this but I've told everyone who'll listen just how lucky I am. I understand this may seem silly but in reality I've had a string of good luck to get me to the point I'm at. Had the tumor not flopped just so and completely blocked my colon I likely would not have found this tumor in time to do anything about it. Secondly, the fact that the tumor was so large that they couldn't get the stent in forced the surgeon to take out the tumor immediately. This meant I didn't have to sit around for weeks with this thing inside of me worrying about what would come of it. I just went to sleep and woke up with a bunch of cancer taken out. That and a poop bag. I was only 10 days from competing in my 8th Ironman triathlon so from a physical fitness standpoint I couldn't be better off and geographically, I just happen to live in a city with a world class cancer centre. There are SO many people that have it worse than me.

I would be remiss if I didn't address the newspaper article and the outpouring of support I've received from former students, colleagues, hockey officials, triathletes and the community at large. In 12 days over $14,000 has been donated to a Go Fund Me account my cousin set up meaning that after my pay is reduced in February we are able to top up my pay for a further 6 months and when you're feeding 6 people on one paycheque this is absolutely amazing. Not having to stress about money and just focusing on getting healthy is the greatest gift we could receive.

The next step is a lymph node biopsy to verify that the suspicious nodes are cancerous (which I suspect they are). This will take place December 4th. From there the doctors will look at my test results and make an attack plan. I'll let you know how it goes!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Ok guys grab a knee. Let's talk health.

I didn't really realize what I'd been training so hard for all of these years. Somehow I'd convinced myself that Ironman was going to be the be all and end all test of my health and conditioning. That all changed last Wednesday when I was registered in the toughest endurance race of my life against my will. Beating Stage 4 cancer.

Here's the problem, cancer, or any other disease was not on my radar in the slightest. I don't go for annual checkups, I don't regularly check my body for weirds lumps and bumps and I definitely don't examine my poop. Why? Because if I do they might find out something was wrong and that's scary. That's where we need to pull our heads out of our asses and get a camera or a finger up there.

My suspicion is that in our male world, having a finger or device shoved up your pooper is embarassing and emasculating. We've all made the jokes about trying to find your dignity up there or whether they're using a whole fist. But the truth of the matter is that 1) They give you some pretty fantastic sedation so you're either out of it completely or in a state where you just don't care. 2) The professionals in the offices are so amazing that you are treated like a human being and it is not the least bit awkward. This is where I would implore you guys to just get it done. Plus, afterwards, you'll cut some of the biggest farts you've ever experienced. That, paired with the fact that you're high on meds makes for one of the funniest things you'll ever experience.
This is the first key to beating an illness: EARLY DETECTION.
Check for lumps and bumps, monitor your overall health and look for changes to your skin and other areas of your body. There are a huge number of things that can be caught on a simple battery of tests that aren't hugely invasive or time consuming. Inspect your testicles for odd bumps or other abnormalities (PLEASE NOTE: If you're reading on the bus, don't do this now. Make a note or reminder in your phone and do it at home.) HOW TO INSPECT YOUR TESTICLES
By doing your annual checkup you get baselines that can be monitored year to year for abnormalities. This is coming from a guy that has done none of this but deeply wishes he had. I've seen what can happen if you ignore the signs. My dad convinced himself he was having bad heart burn and dropped dead of a heart attack. Not smart, stubborn, tough, but not smart.

The next key in my mind is: HEALTHY LIFESTYLE.
I don't think this comes as a surprise but living well helps to fight off as much as possible but I think more importantly in my case, I'm starting from a very strong base when it comes to beating cancer. For those that don't know, my typical training days for Ironman triathlon range anywhere from 2-5 hours of training. This has trained my body to recover quickly, but more importantly to know how far down I can beat myself and still be able to come back for more. As I write this, I am 6 days out of surgery and am feeling almost fully mobile. I attibute this to my body's familiarity with being exhausted and damaged and having to repair itself.

Taken 1 week before my surgery, post 1700 stairs

Additionally, my muscles and organs have great vascularization (blood flow) so when the time comes for them to repair, there are a bunch of nutrient carrying vessels attached and ready to work. My heart and lungs are ready for surgeries that can be very hard on them and my diet is pretty good meaning that my cells are ready to fight.

My final piece of the puzzle is STAY POSITIVE.
We've all heard of the power of positive thinking but I really believe there is something to it. I don't know if it's related to endorphins or cortisol or what but I think that staying positive can be a hugely important factor. When you fail to do it yourself that's when you need to have a support group there to pick you up. I've already run into this once. My first day home, four days after surgery, I was laying on the couch and my gorgeous wife Kim needed me to help with something. I was not feeling up to it and told her I didn't want to help. I finished with, "c'mon, I've got cancer." Without missing a beat Kim said, "You don't have that much cancer, get up!" I was so stunned I started laughing and did what I was told. I guess that well is dry. I need my mother-in-law to come home from Mexico and keep my wife away from me, she's mean.

My wife: Circa 3 days ago
The outpouring of love and support from my friends, loved ones, former students, fellow hockey referees and triathletes is ridiculous to the point of almost being embarrasing. My mom's boss even gave her time off to help me get around and deal with what needs to be taken care of. Part of this amazing support has been people I've never met in my entire life calling me to share their own stories and give me hope and answer questions that only someone who's gone through it before can answer. I know that I've got a lot of work ahead of me. Some serious chemotherapy, a couple good-sized chunks of liver to be removed. But, like that motto I've adopted for triathlon, "I will run, with endurance, the race that is set before me."

I will continue to update my blog and I will be brutally honest in my experiences going forward. 


Monday, 10 November 2014

Unexpected change of events

This blog is going to be a deep one so strap on your hip waders. 

As I prepared for Ironman Arizona, #8 on my way to 12 finishes towards Kona I had a most embarrassing evening. On the morning of Wednesday November 5th I had so much gas that at 4am I had go to a local emergency room to try and get relief. They x-rayed me and the doctor retuned with his diagnosis. "You've got a LOT of poop in there. After trying their usual methods they sent me home with a pain pill and a slippery drink. I went home and took them and awaited relief.

Alas, it did not come. So at 2pm I made my way back to the ER almost unable to drive from pain. As I half collapsed into the triage nurse's chair I explained that I was there because "I just can't poop." It's funny because in Canada, having essentially free health care, we are constantly reminded by the media that the ER is not a clinic for general complaints. But because there is no punishment for using it as such there is rampant abuse. I was begging the nurse to see that I really needed to be there and fortunately she believed me and I got back in fairly quickly. 

After looking at my morning x-ray they decided to upgrade me to a CT scan. This showed that now not only was I full of poo but in fact that I had a full blockage. So an emergent scope of my bowels was scheduled for the next morning. To deal with the pain I was given morphine but this had NO impact on my pain. They decided to try dilaudid and THAT did the trick. They put me on a pump where I could dose myself only every 5 minutes but it tracked how often I tried. In the first 10 minutes I made 19 attempts, but after that it became much less and my eyes began to cross and I felt muuuuuuuuch better. 

I was admitted and the attack of the nursing students commenced. These cute student nurses are so committed to learning and doing everything right that sometimes they're pretty easy to mess with. I quickly learned that one of the questions I was going to be asked a lot was whether I wore hearing aids. Eventually I started responding, "huh?" I would do this 3 or 4 times until I was satisfied that the supervising nurse was laughing hard enough and then I'd allow them to move on. They got me admitted to a ward and I laid there most of the night trying to ignore my pain and tapping away on my pain button like an old-timey train engineer sending our morse code. 

In the morning I was wheeled down and my scope was done. This is done under anesthesia and when I woke up I looked back at the doc and asked, "so, did you get it all out?" He just glared at me. I'm no Jerry Seinfeld but I'm fairly sharp at 7am and that should have at least garnered a smirk... but nothing. I told him I was waiting to see a smile and he replied, "no smile." This was a bit off putting. He returned with a photo and explained they had found a worrying mass that had completely blocked my colon. This was a bummer, so to speak.

I was put in an ambulance and transported across town to another hospital where they could try and open my colon with a stent. I was sedated but not put under and this time the doctor talked me through the entire procedure. I could feel and hear almost everything but wasn't in pain. He explained that the procedure had failed and now I'd be returning to the first hospital for emergency surgery. So around 2pm I was placed back in an ambulance and returned to the Sturgeon and at 9pm was put under for bowel surgery. Just around 48 hours after first experiencing symptoms. 

When I woke up from the surgery I was a bit panicked and very sore. I knew things were going to be tough and I was right. I had had a section of my colon resected (I think that's the right word) and along with it the lymph nodes and blood vessels. They had also seen a few worrisome spots on my liver and one of these was able to be biopsied during the original procedure and the surgeon explained it "felt like cancer." The worst part was not the surgery pain as much as the friggin hoses. I had one taped to my nose that suctioned me non stop from my stomach. I also had an oxygen tube in, so 2 tubes in 1 nostril and 1 in the other. Not so comfy. This was in addition to the IV line hooked into my arm and the almost constant checking of my vital signs. 

It's funny. A hospital is the least restful place when you need the most rest. After a major surgery you'd like some quiet but oh no.

The sounds of a hospital ward are incredible. Guests yakking, patients puking, alarms sounding and all the while...the call buttons. Those nurse call buttons will be the reason for someone's demise. They make a door bell sound down the entire ward every time one of them was pressed and one of them is almost always pressed. Why can't they just turn on a light and after a period of time if a nurse hasn't acknowledged it THEN it makes a noise! Come on people! Not rocket science! 

The NG tube (stomach sucker) is the thing that endured. Just the absolute worst. It sits in your throat and rubs you every time you swallow. And believe me, you swallow a lot. Also, the constant flow of oxygen really lays a beating on your respiratory system because you get SO dry. I was allowed ice chips and they were my life saver. My tongue had gotten so dry I couldn't even say "ice chips" any more. This lasted a couple of day but this was when my friends and family took over. 

The next day the surgeon came and spoke with me and explained that the initial biopsy had come back and was in fact a cancer. They didn't know what kind yet, the more detailed biopsy would give that info but it was go time for me. I was ready to fight, I'd take it on alone if I had to but am absolutely blown away by the fact that I will not have to "go it alone."

I've written before about how we can go through life and sometimes not realize the impact we leave behind. That will not happen again. As I sit here writing this, less than 3 days after being diagnosed with cancer, my amazing friends and family have gotten my air ducts cleaned so I come home to a clean environment, our fridge and freezer are full of meals to the point that my wife has resorted to using the backyard snow to keep some of our food. A fund, set up to help offset some of our costs associated with this fight has over $5000 in it, and most importantly, I have received messages of support from all over the world and from people I've met from age zero to 33. Also, the hockey officials I work with will be sporting these decals on their helmets in support. ALREADY!!!

I could never, in a million years, guessed I had this many people that cared enough about me and my family to be so generous in so many ways. The bummer is now I have to fulfill my end of the deal and that is to beat cancer, a call to battle I will lead from the front. They say the biggest factors affecting success will be my age, health and support. With my Ironman training and devilish youth I've got 2 of the 3 nailed down. And now I know #3 will be taken care of as well. I will gladly ride into battle on the shoulders of my friends and family. 

I won't be able to start any active treatment until 4-6 weeks after this surgery to make sure I'm in the best health possible but I'll keep you along for the ride as I make this little side journey on the way to Kona.