With 2022 coming to a close, I’m feeling reflective.
It’s difficult to paint a picture of the year’s ups and downs. I can only liken the year to a sine wave; my level of enjoyment rising and crashing as the complexities of cancer ebbed and flowed. The frequency shifting—sometimes hourly—as the year progressed.
But life itself tends to be unpredictable, anyways, doesn’t it?
Within those humdrum routines of everyday life, we all have moments interrupted by the unexpected: a flat tire, leaky roof, or the loss of a job.
Pleasant surprises occupy the flipside of the coin: new adventures, moments with friends and family, or the adrenaline rush that comes with overcoming a great challenge.
Through my chemo-induced haze, it was difficult to recognize the best parts of 2022. After all, this is both the year during which I was diagnosed with cancer and the year that I was declared as having no evidence of disease.
At times, life seems stranger than fiction.
In the beginning
As the year started, I was looking forward to what I thought it might bring.
That newly-minted timestamp was full of potential. January 1st, 2022. A whole new chapter, waiting to be written.
Would it be full of travel? Career progression? Laughter?
Sliding into the new year, COVID restrictions had eased a bit. Shannon and I were able to host some of my family for a nice meal in early January, bringing a feeling of normalcy back that had been lost to the pandemic.
We don’t stress too much about the when of our Christmas/New Year’s meal, so we held it the first week of January because it was convenient to everyone.
We ate turkey and caught up after months of not being together, commenting about how the pandemic had dragged out longer than anyone could’ve predicted and lamenting how much of life was on pause because of it.
A couple of weeks prior, we hosted my brother- and sister-in-law and our nieces, indulging in a similar Christmas meal at my mother-in-law’s house.
On both occasions, we talked about how maybe 2022 would mark the end of the pandemic. It didn’t seem unreasonable that—as a society—we would find our way into a new, post-pandemic normalcy of sorts.
Hindsight is a funny thing, isn’t it?
We celebrated my friend’s birthday at my place mid-month, indulging in some Carcassonne and a Dairy Queen ice cream cake; a throwback to the mid-2000s when the three of us would sit in DQ and eat an entire cake in one sitting.
It was unseasonably cold, but we decided to bundle up and go for a winter hike at Frontenac Provincial Park. One of my favourite trail systems, regardless of the time of year. We caught a rare glimpse of an owl, startled a deer, and took in the fresh winter air.
I reciprocated the visit, heading north to Arnprior to celebrate my other friend’s birthday and venturing out on another trek that included some tobogganing.
We started to plan out some hiking for the spring. Things were off to a great start!
That would change on February 4th: colonoscopy day.
I was slated to go in for an upper endoscopy and a colonoscopy. In the fall of in 2021, I started to experience some blood in my stool.
Looking back, 2021 was no walk in the park, either. Shannon and I were renovicted early in the year and were forced to move, the added layer of the pandemic exacerbating an already shitty situation. I was working from home and putting in a lot of hours. I was under a lot of stress from all angles: work, life, pandemic.
The context is important because we were exploring two things through the scopes: an ulcer—which I was hoping for—and an issue with my bowel.
“I hope we do the upper first,” I joked to the nurse escorting me to the endoscopy suite.
“We’re actually starting with the bottom,” she smirked, “but don’t worry, we won’t cross-contaminate.”
I laid, dehydrated, starving, and loopy from sedatives, in the fetal position as a tumour appeared on the colonoscopy monitor.
“Ah, fuck. That doesn’t look good.”
“It’s not,” replied the Doctor, “I’m sorry.”
The scope couldn’t navigate around Sebastian—my tumour—so I was wheeled out to the recovery area. (Yes. Sebastian, like the crab from The Little Mermaid. What of it?)
While the sedatives wore off, one of the nurses handed me a business card for the Cancer Centre of Southeastern Ontario, wished me luck, and told me that Shannon was on her way.
What would I tell Shannon? My dad? All the other people in my life that I care about?
I broke the news to Shannon and let a few people know that I had a tumour, reinforcing that it wasn’t known yet if it was malignant or benign.
The next week was full of scans. The tumour had to go. An MRI, CT scans, and other diagnostics dominated my calendar as my team tried to find answers to all of the important questions: Is it cancerous? Are there other tumours, elsewhere?
Two weeks after my colonoscopy, I was diagnosed with proximal sigmoid colon cancer of an unknown stage.
This event kicked off what would come to feel simultaneously like the shortest and longest year of my life.
I made my phone calls and emailed my family, sharing the news and what little information I had at the time:
“Yes, it’s cancer. No, I don’t know what stage it is. Uh-huh, the same kind that killed my mother. Um, I’m not sure if it’s genetic. No, I don’t think I did anything to cause it. We’re not sure if it’s curable.”
Two days after my diagnosis, Shannon and I joined her family at my mother-in-law’s for a visit. The cancer diagnosis lingered awkwardly in the air. I didn’t look sick and I didn’t really feel sick, either.
How could this be happening? Am I going to die?
No. Stow that shit. It’s time for a makeover and for some fun with family. Cancer can wait. It’ll have to.
As February marched on, bowel resection surgery loomed on the horizon. Reality was either harder to deny or easier to embrace. Whichever was true, my diagnosis started to feel real.
There were consequences attached now: A surgery date. An iron infusion. Pre-surgical screening.
Shit was getting real, and fast.
I found some cancer support groups to connect with other people who’d been in my place: Man Up to Cancer and Young Adult Cancer Canada. I was a cancer noob. I didn’t know if the trepidation and anxiety I was feeling was normal, or whether my thoughts were out of control.
I found validation and perspective through peers who’d already walked in my shoes. They offered advice, reassurance, and confirmation that cancer fucking sucks. I felt a little less crazy.
As surgery approached, Shannon and I kept doing the things we enjoy: going on dinner dates, sneaking in a cheeky pint here and there at the pub, and relishing each other’s company.
Cut it out
A couple of weeks before surgery, Shannon booked the party room at one of our local breweries and hosted what I jokingly called my pre-disembowelment party. Friends and family from across Ontario and different parts of my life dropped in.
We shared some laughs.
I got blackout drunk, trying to forget what was to come. A temporary respite from worrying thoughts about the destruction of life as I knew it.
10/10. Do recommend.
On the Wednesday before my dad’s 60th birthday, I was admitted for surgery and began a month off of work.
His birthday was first casualty of my cancer diagnosis. Instead of spending it celebrating, he spent the next week with Shannon at our place, neither of them able to visit me in the hospital due to pandemic restrictions.
Surgery went well. I had lots of support during my recovery, with my father and mother-in-law spending lots of time helping out. Shannon took some time off, too.
I baby-stepped my way to recovery, first walking around the block with a cane, then ditching the cane, and finally extending the distance of my walks. I spent most of April recovering, but in the back of my mind, I was waiting nervously for the pathology to come back.
It still wasn’t clear if surgery would be it.
(Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)
I met my oncologist the last week of April and we decided on a chemotherapy regimen: six months of FOLFOX. Twelve cycles starting in May.
In a moment of impulse, I threw caution to the wind by picking up some concert tickets for Shannon and I. It’d be one last night out before I would start chemotherapy and my return to work. COVID be damned. It was ten days before I was supposed to start treatment, so FUCK IT. I wanted to live a little.
We had a great time.
(For the record, I have yet to contract COVID. Thankfully.)
I was diagnosed with Stage IIIC signet-cell adenocarcinoma with lymph node involvement and perineural invasion.
I was slotted to have a PICC line put in and added to a waitlist for a port. We had to get started right away and couldn’t afford to wait on the port.
“It’s aggressive and treatment-resistant”, I was cautioned.
“Can we cure it? Will chemotherapy work?,” I asked.
A pause and a moment of thought.
“Well, we’re going into this with curative intent, but to be honest we don’t know if this will work.”
At some point late in April, CancerCanuck is born. It’s been my way to connect to other people living with cancer through social media. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the start my foray into the world of cancer advocacy.
I’ve ended up meeting lots of great people through social media. The cancer community is, coincidentally, one with far less toxicity than many others. In spite of the chemotherapy and everything!
After a few cycles of treatment, I get my port put in and the PICC removed. Finally: I can have a real. Fucking. Shower. No more plastic bag on my arm.
The cumulative effects of treatment began to take a toll. I was exhausted beyond description. I couldn’t concentrate. I was becoming more forgetful. My sleep was interrupted. Food tolerance was unpredictable.
I felt like a cancer patient, but kept pushing myself to continue working.
I kept working through the summer, getting more exhausted with each passing day. I thought about taking leave but also really wanted something to focus on aside from being sick, feeling like shit, and looking like shit.
Throughout the summer, Shannon and I kept life as normal as possible. My dad visited lots, we saw lots of friends and family, and generally tried to work around the bad days.
We spent a week at a cottage with family. It was the first time lots of folks saw me during treatment. I wore my infuser pump, discreetly tucking it into my pocket. I slept a lot, missing out on fun activities such as swimming and campfires. But I was there, even if I wasn’t there.
I also met some of the Canadian Man Up to Cancer guys in person for the first time. A gut check to see if we could tolerate each other to carpool for five hours to the inaugural Gathering of Wolves for members of our group.
We became fast friends!
Shannon and I went to an annual meetup with friends for some back yard camping. One of the many times that I’d hear a variation on “if you’ve got cancer, that’s the one to get.”
Finally, on September 1st, I decided to work part time. This gave me the flexibility to sleep when required, to disconnect whenever I needed to, and the ability to always prioritize my health.
I was trying not to blow up my career. Life goes on after cancer, you know?
As a young person with the disease, I didn’t want to compromise the life that Shannon and I were building.
“I’ll be back full time a month after treatment,” I shared. November 21st.
I took some time to attend Man Up to Cancer’s Gathering of Wolves event, strengthening bonds with some of the men I’d began to view as brothers throughout my ordeal. It was the first time I’d left Canada since the pandemic, venturing to New York state.
It was a lot of fun.
The on/off cycle of good weeks and bad weeks continued as treatment carried on. But finally, finally, on October 21st, I rang the bell at my cancer centre. No evidence of disease.
I ended the last sentence of that chapter of my life and began writing a new one.
The weekend after my last treatment, I attended the Health eMatters conference in Toronto. I met some friends from Twitter and Young Adult Cancer Canada in person for the first time and made some new ones, too.
I learned a lot about storytelling as it relates to advocacy and walked away with some goals: I will become a prominent voice in the cancer community. I will advocate for young cancer patients. I will make someone’s life better.
While I was at the conference, I was approached about being part of a documentary on men’s mental health. It would be a chance to share the story of a decades long battle with anxiety and depression in the context of COVID-19 and cancer.
Sign me up!
I turned 35 on November 18th.
My dad came to visit a couple of days before. It was the first time that we’d spent with each other since the start of treatment where I wasn’t being beating down by the on/off cycle of treatment weeks versus non-treatment weeks.
We took a few trail walks and ended up seeing some interesting critters, which he was able to photograph.
For my birthday: some delicious Indian food and a pub crawl with Shannon, my mother-in-law, and my sister-in-law.
We shared some ice cream cake, which was off the table during treatment because of the cold sensitivity induced by FOLFOX.
It tasted good as ever.
After my birthday weekend, it was back to work. I did miss it. I missed the routine and socializing with my colleagues. Problem solving. Having breakthroughs. But I worried that it was too soon and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Some days I still think I’m trying to prove myself wrong.
In November, I also started volunteering with Young Adult Cancer Canada as a peer chat leader. I joined the Patient and Family Advisory Council at my cancer centre as a Patient Experience Advisor.
I felt able to truly embrace the suck of cancer, privileged to be in a position to give back to a community that had given me so much when I needed it most.
I plan to continue volunteering throughout 2023. It’s something I’ve come to really enjoy as I flesh out where I sit in the world of advocacy.
We’ll see where things end up.
With family living in different places, it means that Shannon and I usually have two Christmases.
This year, we managed to sneak one in at my dad’s place (after the worst Ontario winter storm in my lifetime delayed our travel plans). We exchanged stockings and gifts, plus had a bonus visit with an aunt I hadn’t seen in a long time.
Then, we made our way to my mother-in-law’s place for Christmas with Shannon’s side of the family. Lots of nieces. Lots of toys.
They hung around for the week and played with the cats, who were working overtime to keep the girls entertained.
That brings me to today: December 31st, 2022.
I don’t know what 2023 is going to bring, just as I didn’t know what would come of 2022 when it first started.
I hope it’s less chaotic. I hope there’s more stability. I hope that it’s a year of recovery, not recurrence. I hope for many things.
I also hope that the new year brings good luck and good fortune to you. If you’re reading this, you’ve made an impact in my life whether you know it or not.
This story—my story—is not that special. But it’s mine, it’s real, and you’re a part of it whether either of us recognize it.
Thank you for reading.
Happy New Year and good riddance to 2022.