About a Boy

Meet the boy.
Meet the boy.

Since I was a teenager, I knew I wanted children. I didn’t meet Robin until I was 43, so I knew I would be an old dad, if at all. We didn’t have to wait too long. Will was born in the summer of 2010.

Our happiness was cut short. Exactly one year later, I was back in the same hospital where he was born, enduring my first chemo treatment (we moved the date of his first birthday party.)  For months afterward, when I cried about having cancer, I was really crying about saying goodbye to Will. The thing that made me happiest was the same thing that made me saddest.

That “thing” is now three and a half. His curly hair is from me, his good looks come from his mother, and his blue eyes remain a mystery. (Right, Robin… Robin?)  He loves tools and trains and superheroes. He is one of the happiest kids I have ever met.

He is also our secret weapon against cancer. Because of him, I have never wondered if the struggle was worth it.  We used to bring him to medical appointments, hoping he would charm the doctors into doing a better job at saving my life.  If he were just a little cuter, I could use him to get tickets to Book of Mormon.

When I was first diagnosed, I hoped for remission, but told myself I would settle for five more years — just long enough to ensure he had a good foundation: kind, confident and strong enough to grow up without a father.  It’s been nearly three years and he’s off to a great start.

The “cancer and death”  conversation seems far away, right now. He knows I go to hospital, and he’s seen me hooked up to the chemo drip. We’ve told him it’s to take away my cough.

I was in hospital the other day, for a pre-chemo blood test. I took Will with me. I sat shirtless on the edge of a bed, waiting for the nurse. Will sat in a chair, asking me questions about the medical equipment in the room. Then I stared into space, thinking about cancer, death, and Will, like I always do when I’m in a hospital.

Will looked at me. “You’ll be okay daddy.”

Well, I’m okay today, Will. You make for great todays.


My Cancer, part I

Meet the wife.
Meet the wife.

My cancer started with a sore leg, first noticed after walking many blocks of Toronto streets in December, 2010. I put it down to hard shoes and harder asphalt.

Three weeks later, my left calf was thick and spongy. I had a blood clot.

But why? I was in good shape, pretty active. I googled clots, and a few days later asked my family doctor if it might be caused by a tumour. Nope, he said.

A month later, a small round bump appeared on my inside left thigh. Cancer? No, said my doctor. A month later, the lump looked like half an egg. Cancer? No cancer, I was told.

Then the pain started. Excruciating lightning bursts up and down my leg. I was referred to a hematologist, who said “You should see an oncologist.” I felt relief, because if a doctor is going to dismiss my fears as uninformed  hypochondria, I want it to be a doctor in the appropriate field.

One MRI later, one of Manitoba’s top oncologists told my wife and I that she was “99 per cent sure it’s not cancer.” (Since you already know where this is going, let me stress that I am not exaggerating for effect: the figure quoted to us was 99 per cent.)

So, back to the hematologist who scheduled me for surgery to repair a leaking vein.  On June 15, 2011, I was in hospital, with my wife, waiting for the move to the O.R. They first sent an exploratory camera down my thigh to get a look at the battlefield. Standard stuff.

Then, they sent me to Radiology for a scan of my lungs. Not so standard.
Two hours later, the surgeon — the hematologist — entered my room.

“It’s not good news,” he said quietly.
To this day, I remain grateful for the straightforward and calming way he told my wife and I that I had cancer.



Snot catcher? Or me snorting a bat? (photo robin summerfield)
Snot catcher? Or me snorting a bat? (photo robin summerfield)

In time, we can talk about the nausea, or the fatigue, or the many unexpected side effects that pop up in the days following a three-day chemo session. And of course, there is the constipation — post-chemo, my internal organs most resemble the unoiled Tin Man in Wizard of Oz.

Today, though, it’s about hair loss. The kind you don’t expect. Cancer and chemo have shown me exactly why we have nose hair, something I had never ever contemplated. Obviously, it is about function over form, since I’ve never seen a commercial where a nose-hair model shakes her face and releases a long, luxurious thatch of black nostril hair that bounces in slow-motion.

What I’ve learned is this: nose hair is a tremendous snot-catcher. It’s a beaver dam up the bridge of your nose. And when it’s gone, you lose not only the thing that holds back the stuff, but also the very thing that is supposed to alert your brain re: the rebel flow.

As a result, I get concerned looks, mid-conversation, from people trying to alert me, in the politest way possible, that I resemble a three-year-old. When I use my putter on the golf green, I have seen silver parachutes drop down from my face to splooge the ball. On a windy day, my golf partner quietly moves a few steps away. And on any windy day, it’s a constant, wet ebb. So these days I sniff a lot, and carry handmade handkerchiefs

Given a chance to reclaim one chemo-ravaged section of hair, I would choose eyebrows first. With them, you just look bald. (Without them, you look like an alien or a slightly grey man from the future.) Then, I would pick nose hairs. Living with cancer challenges me to retain as much dignity as possible. Avoiding liquid-lip goes a long way. So appreciate your nose hair… give it a trim tonight!