It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Some days, all the parking spots are close to the door, all the elevator doors open when the button is pushed, and all the brain scans are tumour-free.

And that was our December 23.

I still have tumours, in all the old familiar places, and there are plans to deal with them in 2015. However, most of my attention has been focussed on a recent MRI of my brain. On Tuesday, my doctor gave me the results. It’s called a “clear scan”, and it’s been awhile since I’ve had one of those. The disease off my brain is a load off my mind.

This means our Christmas can be about gratitude for the present and genuine hope for the future.

I can even picture conversing with Scrooge’s third ghost.

Merry Christmas everyone, from Robin, Will and myself.


Ink Mister


I never thought of myself as a tattoo guy. The closest I’ve come is a sunburn on my back that looked a little like Italy. If you squinted.

But last week, I got a tattoo, because of cancer. My tattoo isn’t something inspirational, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. It is not rebellious, like the slogan “F–k cancer” (inspired by Betty Crockers’ infamous “F–k Pillsbury” ads from the 1950s.

My tattoo is…. four dots. They are small, spread across my torso. You have to squint to see them.

I would like to say they represent the four seasons of life, the four winds or the four directions we can travel. In fact, they represent four small spots on my body. Pretty deep, right?

Was this the worst-ever episode of Ink Master?

No. I am about to begin a month of stereotactic body radiation therapy (SBRT) to remove tumours on my spine. The tightly focused beam of radiation must hit its target and nothing else, over the course of four weekly sessions. The radiation therapists use the dots as reference points, to place me in the exact same position each time.

So I went to hospital to get my dots. I thought they would use a permanent marker. Then one of the therapists mentioned needles. “Does this work like a tattoo,” I asked. “It is a tattoo,” she replied. Then she poked me in the ribs. For those who have never been tattooed, let me confirm that, yes, it does hurt. And it doesn’t get any less painful by the fourth dot. Luckily, I’m rugged.

I like my tattoo, but I don’t think I’ll get another. I wouldn’t want to clutter my body with, say, a fifth dot.

I like to stand in front of the mirror, shirtless. And that was before I got the tattoo. Now, I spend long minutes staring at my body art, wondering if it makes me look tougher.

I look forward to hitting the beach this summer.  I can picture the jealous reactions from people standing really, really close to me.

“What are those?” they will ask. “Freckles?”

No, I will reply.

“Skin tags then?”

No, not skin tags.

“Are they moles? They look suspicious. You should get them checked out. You wouldn’t want to get cancer.”

Sharp teeth

I watched HBO’s documenary on Jimmy Valvano, the colourful and successful U.S. college basketball coach. In 1993, two months before he died of cancer, he spoke at the ESPY sports awards. He described three things we should all do each day:

“You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought.  And number three is you should have your emotions moved to tears…. If you laugh, and you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.”

I definitely have the crying part down. I think every day, mostly while lying in bed. And I laugh, because life is funny, and some days even cancer is funny.  That’s why I started this blog; to show that cancer isn’t all sharp teeth and darkness.

But sometimes, cancer reminds me that the laughs are hard to come by, and probably temporary.

Last week, I was still waiting for a date to remove a tumour on my spine (seven weeks and counting). On Wednesday, my back pain returned, so I took morphine. On Thursday, I began to puke, as I sometimes do after morphine. Over the next 11 hours, I vomited 19 times. At day’s end, completely dehydrated, I began to spasm up and down my left side. My wife took me to hospital, where I was hydrated all night. They took a CT scan of my head, which revealed little (make your joke here).

My hope is that a sore back muscle required a painkiller which prompted a drug reaction that led to severe vomiting, that led to dehydration, which begat the spasms, who begat Noah, who begat Seth…

Or maybe I’m just full of tumours.

I feel like cancer is saying “I have ignored you, and allowed you your small daily victories, because I have so many other lives to destroy right now. But I have not forgotten you. My memory is long.”

Maybe cancer is a cat, and I am a bird on the ground.

That’s why I write. The more cancer scares me, the more I need to find the laughter. I need each day to be “a heck of a day.”

Silver Lining Ploy Book

Despite well-intended testimonials to the contrary, very little about cancer is “empowering.”

So it was nice to be reminded of  a genuine silver lining the other day. MTS — the provincial phone company — called me at home. The nice young woman noted I am on a pay-as-you-go, month-to-month, that’s-enough-hyphens cell phone plan. Would I like to enter into a one-year contract and get one month for free?

I live for these moments.

“I’m sorry Miss. It sounds like a good deal, but I have cancer so I don’t enter into long-term commitments.”

Check and mate. Cancer is kryptonite for telemarketers. All they can do, as she did, was apologize for calling and wish me the best. After three years, I have a small army of telemarketers rooting for me.

I first recognized this phenomenon when a rep from my bank tried to sell me life insurance. My honest answer was, yes, I would love to buy as much as I can, but the likelihood of a looming payout guarantees your company won’t actually sell it to me.

“Thank you for your time Mr. O’Brien, and good luck.”

I have since turned down several life insurance salesmen, all of whom evolve from polite to incredibly polite during our brief calls.

I know I can visit Mexico armed with the perfect answer for anyone who tries to sell me a time-share. “Did you say “time?”, ’cause that’s the one thing I don’t have.”

I easily decline extended warranties. “Sixty bucks for another year? Let me get back to you after my next scan.” The only extended warranty I want is from my oncologist.

I will continue to exploit this rare silver lining. And not just with telemarketers. It can end any phone call, especially if the caller knows little about cancer.

“Hey mom, I gotta go. A new tumour just popped up. On my ankle. Yeah, I’m looking at it now. Okay bye, love ya!”

I am waiting to test this power in the ultimate challenge: “Sorry officer. I’m just rushing to my radiation treatment. You know, before it spreads.

“How about an official escort?”