I’m a Cancer Survivor but I won’t be a Life Survivor.

It seems odd for me to describe myself as a cancer survivor. Oh, I had cancer, alright. In 2002, very early in the year, I was diagnosed serendipitously with kidney cell cancer. I had gone to see my GP about acid reflux so he sent me to to the hospital to have an ultrasound to check it out. The ultrasound tech wasn’t looking for anything in particular is my guess, but she zeroed in on my left kidney and sure enough there was a lesion there that they strongly suspected was kidney cell cancer. The techs didn’t tell me that, of course. They don’t discuss the results of a scan with patients in my experience. My GP was the one to break the news to me. His office called me to tell me the doctor wanted to see me at 5:30 the following day. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but in hindsight, that was an unusual thing for my GP to do. In any case, he broke it to me and said that the best chance of a full recovery for me was surgery as soon as possible. Then he sent me off to see the urologist who would perform the surgery. They didn’t perform a biopsy they said because of the fear of spreading the cancer which at that point was restricted to my left kidney. Fair enough.

So, after all the preliminary tests were done and I had seen the surgeon and the anesthesiologist my surgery was scheduled for the third week of February. Normally, of course, I would have been teaching at that time, but that wasn’t going to happen so the college arranged for subs on very short notice, one of whom was to die of cancer a few years later. The thing is that there are no obvious symptoms with kidney cell cancer. As far as I know, it doesn’t usually affect kidney function, so my kidneys didn’t show any signs of stress or disease. I felt fine. I did some work around the property. It so happened that we were just in the process of buying a new place in Cumberland, BC when I was diagnosed. There was a lot to do. We had an acre of property with the house and several outbuildings. It was a good thing that I wasn’t particularly debilitated. That was to come later.

Needless to say, a cancer diagnosis is traumatizing for everyone involved. I was concerned for my family as much, if not more, than for myself. Strangely, I was convinced that this cancer wouldn’t kill me so I was pretty upbeat about the whole thing. Why I felt this way I have no idea. It could be I was in denial. We humans are great at denial, even me.

Finally, I had my day in the operating room. I arrived at the hospital with Carolyn early in the morning with hardly anyone around. We said our goodbyes and I was taken to the pre-op area. They didn’t waste any time getting me ready and into the operating room. That I remember. My GP was in attendance and assisting, although I didn’t see him in the operating room at the time. Later, my GP told me that the surgeon had cut me in half laterally on my left thoracic area so that the kidney could be gently lifted out helping to keep the cancer contained. He said it was quite daunting. That’s what happened. Since then I’ve made do with one kidney. One of my former students was a nurse in the OR. We joked around until the anesthetic kicked in. Having a former student in OR isn’t unusual because many of my students were in the nursing program and were taking my sociology courses as electives. It happened again last year when Carolyn went in to have her appendix removed. My former students are everywhere!

I tell you all of this so you get a sense of what I mean when I say I’m a cancer survivor, but I find it hard to describe myself as such. I think of cancer survivors as people who have had to struggle for weeks, months or years on chemo and/or radiation, losing their hair and being in horrible pain the whole time. I have known many people who have succumbed to cancer, but I also know a number of people who have fought it, and fought it valiantly for long periods of time and survived. My cancer recovery was not at all long and drawn out. The surgery put an end to it. Done. Well, mostly done. My surgery was seventeen years ago and my left thoracic area has been a source of constant pain since then, aggravated often by the slightest movement. The pain in my side never lets me forget about the cancer that almost claimed my life. It gets pretty tiresome at times and saps my energy, but I carry on because what else is there to do? No, suicide is not an option.

So, I guess I’m a kind of cancer survivor, but I won’t be a life survivor. No one has ever been, nor will anyone ever be a life survivor. Nothing can ‘cure’ us of death. My surgery has allowed me to live longer and that’s fine, but I’m still in line for dying. And that’s fine. I don’t have any illusions about life and death. Life demands death. Life cannot happen without death. Denying that gets us nowhere. So, every day is one more day to enjoy and struggle over. When it’s done it will be done. That’s it. I know that some of you might think it odd that I say it, but if I had died on 2002, that would have been fine too. Carolyn and my family would have been sad and would have mourned my loss, but they would have gotten on with their lives. That’s what we do when people close to us die, we get on with our lives until our turn comes.

My back is hooped! I need a new one.

My lower back is permanently damaged because of an industrial injury that I had when I was around 20 years old, followed by a disc removal in my lumbar region. Over the decades that injury and surgery have often left me incapacitated and practically immobilized at times. The pain spikes up to a 10 at times although if I lie still it’s manageable. Dare I try to move and I get gut wrenching debilitating pain spikes. In 2002 I was diagnosed with kidney cell cancer so a surgeon removed my left kidney leaving a 14 inch scar from my abdomen in front to close to my spine at the back. Gladly, the cancer had not metastasized and I’m cancer free 16 years later. The pain from the surgery, however, has not abated much and it has joined up with the pain from my disc surgery and injury to create a crazy nexus of pain on my left side from my hip  to my upper thoracic area. Joining this happy little pain scenario is a B12 deficiency that has left me feeling constantly hung over and exhausted. Add to that a couple of other injuries to my right knee and both shoulders makes life very interesting. So, what have I done about this and what can I do now about this?

Through all of this I’ve tried to maintain some normalcy in my life. At times it was impossible and I had to take months off of work on three occasions. Now that I’m retired I can’t take time off anymore! Such a drag.

Over the years, I’ve tried a number of ways of dealing with my back pain and I’ve had scores of very well meaning people suggest ways that they’ve tried and found effective  in dealing with back pain including any number of varieties of physiotherapy, exercise, massage, acupuncture, yoga, meds, diet, etc., etc., etc. I have availed myself of most of the remedies recommended. Nothing seems to work for any length of time although I have gotten stretches of pain-reduced time over the years and I have been able to paint, sculpt (even using a chainsaw), printmake and putter in my shop. I cherish those times, and I want them back.

A couple of days ago, we (my family and I) attended my mother’s funeral in Maillardville. Before leaving my daughter’s home in Vancouver to go to the church for the ceremony I thought I would reach down and tie my shoes. Big mistake. That triggered a pain reaction in my back that almost had me passing out. The ceremonies at the church and later at the cemetery were very difficult because of the pain, never mind the grief. Yesterday, I drove home and although I was not entirely pain free, I was more or less comfortable. That’s the way this pain syndrome works. It comes and goes. This morning I did a stupid thing again. I tried to tie my shoes. Not too bright, this old man. I was aiming to go with Carolyn to walk the dog. Instead, I lay on the couch hopped up on T3s. I’ve got some pain relief right now and can sit and type this on my computer, but I have no idea how long this will last. Tomorrow, I call my M.D. I doubt he can do anything, but maybe prescribe some more T3s. I see a neurologist at the end of February. I hope he will be able to help me with the pain, the exhaustion, the dizziness, etc.

I tell you this not because I want sympathy. Maybe a little understanding would be good, but that can only come with knowledge. Hence this blog post. One problem is that most of the time I look pretty normal and healthy. People assume that I am and I don’t blame them. I do, however, find it a little frustrating when people ask me how I’m feeling. I don’t know what to say. It’s complicated. I have normal blood pressure, my pulse is good. In fact all my vital signs are good. I’ve just had an MRI that told me that my brain is in pretty good shape. So, yeah, it’s complicated. It might be good for those of us who experience debilitating pain to have a gauge implanted under the skin of our forearms indicating the level of pain we are experiencing at any given moment. I’m joking, of course, but…

Being at my mother’s funeral a couple of days ago was sobering to say the least. I couldn’t help but think about my own mortality and morbidity. My eldest sister is 82, almost 83 years old. She’s in good shape and could easily live well into her 90s. Most of my siblings are in good shape although MS and other autoimmune issues run in the family and I expect most of us will live long lives. It’s in our genes. But my parents’ generation is almost all gone. It’s our turn now to leave this mortal coil, and we will, one after the other, it’s just a matter of time.

More about my take on life and death in my next post coming soon.