You know how in the movies, when someone learns they have cancer for the first time, they’re usually sitting in a doctors office discussing the results of a recent biopsy when they hear “those three words”: you have cancer…?
Well, it didn’t happen to me like that.
One year ago today, I learned that I had cancer – but no medical professional has ever straight up said it to me. I was wide awake when they performed my first colonoscopy (a sigmoidoscopy, to be precise) and I will never forget the look on everyone’s face when they saw what they saw. I knew immediately that they regretted giving me the option to watch. I remember asking, when I saw the tumor on the massive flat-screen directly beside my face, “what’s that?”, and how the room fell silent. I’ll never forget how the answer to that question was simply, “yep, that’s what’s bleeding”. I’ll never forget watching that little tiny little fine-toothed creature tear biopsy samples away from me; and I’ll never forget how, when the technician or nurse or doctor or whoever it was performing the procedure, said to me: “Branden, I’ll be right back so we can have a little chat, okay?”
My version of a doctor telling me “you have cancer” was a combination of that woman saying, “This is very concerning – it looks cancerous to me”, numerous doctors asking me to recount my memory of what I understood might be happening, and then a nervous intern mumbling under his breath that the biopsies came back positive for carcinoma several days later. The entire diagnostic process, from sigmoidoscopy to full colonoscopy CT to MRI, I had been admitted to the hospital, and didn’t leave for eleven days. It took about this amount of time for my official diagnoses to come together, and for my “care” to be “transferred” to the GI team (who were responsible for diagnosing me) to Dr. Buie and his surgical team (who were responsible for my surgery & recovery from surgery). It was tough, because I didn’t check in to emergency at Foothills because I was experiencing anything that made me feel sick – I felt totally normal. But for ten days, I was hooked up to IV fluids and getting bloodwork taken every night at 3 am, simply waiting for the process of a diagnoses to come together. And through all of this, not once did I ever hear, from anybody, “you have cancer”.
I feel like there are so many small details I didn’t have the time or energy or wherewithal to explain to anybody while I was experiencing it all. It was a very, “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” typed sort of situation – there wasn’t much time to prepare, if you know what I’m saying. It all happened so fast. As I look back on my experiences throughout the year, I can recall them with much more clarity and understanding. The time I spent undergoing chemotherapy prior to my surgery (they call this neoadjuvent treatment), from January to March, was the happiest and the best I have felt in my entire life. When I look back at how much everyone around me contributed financially so that I was able to focus on my treatment as well as work integratively with a naturopathic oncologist (even with all of my conventional oncologists kicking and screaming about it), I actually don’t know what I would have done without that support. I honestly don’t believe I would have achieved the results I did without the support of everything that Dr. Matt Pyatt (my naturopathic doctor) helped me with while I was hooked up to chemo. It’s not like I have anything to compare my experience to, except for other people’s stories, but while I was undergoing chemotherapy, I experienced more energy and more of a sense of overall well-being and purpose than I ever had in my entire life. I attribute that about 25% to not having to work, and 75% to everything I did with Dr. Pyatt and the staff at his clinic – I would recommend it to absolutely anyone who decides to go forward with conventional treatment, regardless of how much or in how many ways your oncologist tries to scare you out of it. If your oncologist isn’t receptive to your desire to craft an integrative treatment plan for yourself – fire them. I did. They don’t want you anyway.
My surgery is an entirely different story. Since my Dad had been diagnosed with the same cancer earlier in the year, and had underwent the same surgery several months prior, I had witnessed first-hand how quickly he recovered. And since my body’s response to neo-adjuvent treatment was so extreme, Dr. Buie was able to perform my surgery laproscopically, which is far less invasive and comes with a shorter recovery period. But things went wrong. Things went terribly, terribly wrong. A three-to-five day recovery period in the hospital turned out to be six weeks in total, with about a month’s worth of care from a nurse who came directly to my living room to check up on me & change bandages and dressings once I was discharged. In my whole thirty years of life on earth, that was the singular hardest thing I have ever experienced – it was the darkest place I have ever been. I swear, the depths to which I was witness to while I was in that place are depths in which the Devil himself resides. But God is there too. I learned that.
I didn’t want to see a single soul while I was there – or, more accurately, I didn’t want a single soul to see me, aside from my immediate family and Tristan. I declined visits from friends, and even fought against visits from Tristan’s family. I was too tired. I was too fucking messed up! …and looking back, I have to thank those people who came anyway… I have to thank those people who found a way to figure out where I was, and stopped by without notice. I have to thank those people who knew me saying no was bullshit, because even though I knew what I wanted at the time, I had very little idea how much I needed that presence. Someone I met on Facebook who had also been experiencing something similar managed to find out where I was, brought me flowers, and validated my struggle. He was there for less than five minutes, and I will never forget his kindness. Thank-you to those who not only offered their support in so many different ways, but pushed back when they felt me pushing them away. Thank-you to those who came to sit by my side, whether it was for five minutes or every single day while I was there.
I’m fully recovered, now – I’ve been fully recovered for about four months now. It took me about four months from my original surgery to feel normal again, and it’s been eight months total since I took the blow. I did mention this in my original update, but I did end up having to come out of surgery with a stoma (a loop ileostomy). I’ve gotten pretty pro at living with this thing, and most of the time I don’t mind it at all. However, we are still waiting for this perforation to heal completely before Dr. Buie can perform a reversal surgery. We thought I might be ready by the end of this month, but a recent test showed that there is still a bit of an internal leak (although compared to the original imaging I had done when I was in the hospital, things are healing – just slowly). My next follow-up appointment with Dr. Buie is scheduled for the end of January, where we will re-assess and probably book another test to check on my progress.
As far as “the cancer” goes, I know a lot of people are interested to know if I’m “cancer-free” or “in remission” after this whole ordeal. Since I was in the hospital for so long recovering from surgery, too much time had passed for any adjuvant (post-op) treatment to have any “benefits” – or, for it to do far more harm than “good”. My original oncologist had moved to Vancouver, or Edmonton, or somewhere (nobody at the hospital could seem to come up with a common answer), so I had a new oncologist to follow-up with once I was out of the hospital. It was her suggestion that we do NOT go forward with any additional treatment, although I was prepared to politely decline anyway. Regardless, it was a relief. Instead, I have been put on a “high observation” schedule, which means a follow-up appointment with the same nurse once every 4-6 months, accompanied by bloodwork, as well as a CT scan once every 8-12 months or so, for around the next 2 years. After that, if nothing comes up, the frequency of my follow up visits, bloodwork, and CT scans will decrease, until we hit 5 years. Once 5 years has passed, according to the cancer industry, I can consider myself “cancer-free”. I think this is only because cancer research doesn’t follow anybody after 5 years, and so all of the statistics are based on this 5-year survival rate. I believe I am cancer-free at the moment, although it gets complicated saying that because we all have cancer cells in our bodies – however, I believe I am tumor-free, and that my immune system’s got a handle on it. I’ll do my very best to support my body and work with it to help me stay tumor-free, not just up until the 5-year point (which doesn’t carry much meaning for me), but for the rest of my life. I have a supplementation routine that I am very proud of and take very seriously – I’ve been thinking about writing a post just going through all of that alone.
So, other than being under high observation and waiting patiently to undergo a reversal surgery, I am simply working to pay the bills & trying to come up with a plan for the future (it will most definitely involve going back to school in some way, shape, or form). Unlike a lot of cancer “survivor” stories I have read or heard of, “the answer” hasn’t magically appeared for me – I still haven’t realized my true purpose or reason for my life on earth. I’ve learned a fuck ton of other things, but nothing magically became crystal clear. I was in the zone while I was undergoing treatment – I wish I could still feel that way, but it feels like it was such a luxury, not having to work. Now that I’ve both experienced how bad things can get, and now that I’ve healed (physically) from it, it’s back to what feels like a never-ending grind to make ends meet, with precious little moments scattered in-between to keep me going. I have a lot to work through, emotionally – psychologically. I think I harbor a minor bit of PTSD from the things I went through while I was hospitalized. I kept my surgery bracelet and when I came across it recently, a lot of emotions bubbled to the surface. I cry at the drop of a hat all the time now – everything is sad. There are some deep-seated emotions regarding a variety of things that need to be worked through, I just don’t know where to start or how to do it.
One big change that has happened is that we did finally move from our basement apartment (which was located, strangely enough, within sight of my hospital room and made the most perfect basecamp for my family while I was there) to a bright, new, modern, upper-level apartment in Bowness. I am grateful to our old place for what it was able to provide for us at the time, but I am beyond relieved to live in an area where I don’t have to see the hospital every time I walk the dogs.
The purpose of writing this update was, first and foremost, to update everyone who was even aware what was going on with me, and especially those who contributed to my GoFundMe campaign. But my other big reason for writing this update was so that I could finally close it, and send out a final thank-you to everyone who contributed. I never really understoof these GoFundMe campaigns when I saw them popping up for other people, but now I realize what an unbelievable platform it is to make crowdfunding so accessible. I especially want to say thank-you to those who donated more than once – it was so unexpected to see some of the names I saw popping up on this campaign, but even more unexpected to see them repeating themselves. You have all made an unbelievable difference regarding my experience with cancer, and quite possibly my life.
I don’t have many pictures to share, but I do have this one-and-only photo of me and my colorectal surgeon, Dr. Donald Buie, from before he operated on my bowels. He called me this morning – I’ve never spoken to him on the phone before, as he is very difficult to even book a hot minute with outside of regularly scheduled follow-ups. I had to pull teeth to get that phonecall, and it took six weeks – funny how it landed on today, of all days. I told him what day it was, and he validated how far I had come in a year. That felt good, being acknowledged for that, by him.
Anyway, I hope you all have a peaceful, non-chaotic, beautiful, sparkly Christmas filled with an abundance of food, love, laughter, joy, gratitude, and inspiration. 2016 has equally been the best and the most challenging year thus far for me, and my healing will continue into 2017 and beyond.
Thank you so much for your continued love and support!