Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Losing your hair and yourself a bit too

Hey world, this is going to be a short one this week, I have my checkup this week, so not much time to write.

Most chemo treatments make your hair fall out. This I was prepared for.

Or so I thought.

The first round of chemo treatments no hair fell out. I thought this was a big success and that it would just gradually fall out over time. The first few weeks went by and it was still quite strongly bound to my head.

My second chemo treatment was quite a different experience. It was a different set of drugs and I found it hard to believe but my hair started falling out in clumps off the top of my head within half an hour. My pillow was covered. It is not something I like to think about. Some hair held on, but the drive home from the hospital it fell out a bit more in the car. When I changed my clothes my chest hair fell out. Although a smooth chest is some guys dream, this was not something I was looking forward to.

Hair falling out everywhere. I tried to "hang on" to as much as I could but it was a losing battle, so I armed myself with my trimmers and cut it all off the top of my head. As a guy this wasn't a huge deal, I don't style my hair per se, I felt I looked a bit weird bald but it wasn't terrible. I can only imagine how a women feels, or a guy who cares about his hair for that matter.

What I wasn't prepared for, and something I never really thought about was when my eyebrows and eye lashes fell out. When this happened it was obvious to the world I was sick. I always liked hiding from people that I was undergoing chemo but I couldn't anymore. It was one of the things that made me feel super self conscious. I couldn't even look at myself in the mirror most days. I didn't see myself anymore. Just some sick hairless pasty thing. I have been told that loss of identity is a common problem chemo patients have. So if you have this problem, you are not alone. I just stopped looking in the mirror and pretended everything was fine most days, and that I looked fine, even though I didn't.

As chemo went on, my treatments got spread out more. My eye lashes would grow in a bit, fall out again, the cycle was really hard to deal with mentally. Eventually though, as I finished chemo, my hair grew back...and then fell out again. Apparently this happens to a lot of chemo patients too, something I wasn't aware of. It is one final slap in the face.

But my hair did grow back. It was very mentally tough to wait it out coming back. It didn't grow back as full, and my facial hair is patchy, but it was a real sign that I was recovering.

I won't soon forget what it felt like to lose all my hair, and the mental trauma it causes. But at the end of the day, I needed the treatment, so I can't complain too much. That is basically how I deal with those thoughts in my memory these days.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

My Biggest Fears

I always get really stressed out when I have check ups. I have a check up this week, hence this topic.

I know they are there for my benefit, and at the end of the day, I need them, but the thought of walking back into that hospital and getting round after round of chemo put in my body is really the thing I fear most. I have one this coming week. The "regular" set of tests, and then the appointment with my oncologist the following week.

I don't mind being in the hospital. I volunteer there once a week. I am there on my own terms. When you are sick, you have no choice. You have to go, and the pain, although it is helping you, is quite an ordeal to go through. I know I made it through my treatment, and I believe it has worked, I in that. However, as any cancer survivor will tell you, the fear isn't there everyday, but it always seems to be there.

I worry about the needles, the constant pain, and the hardship on my family. I know I am tough, but I prefer not to have to go through any of that again. 

I recently got married. I don't want to leave Sara on her own. I promised her I would take care of her. And to start a family and not be able to see it through almost makes me feel like I would be abandoning them. Even when I would never do something like that.

 Not being able to contribute and help people out is a big fear. It took me getting sick to start getting involved in helping cancer patients. Last year I raised $4820 for cancer research and am going again this year. But I feel I have many years to make up for, so I need to double my efforts. I work hard to make sure that people weren't as ignorant as I perceive myself to have been. You can still have a successful career and make a difference in your community. I try to show this to people as often as I can.

I was reminded recently why we must keep fighting. A young women, aged 23 who worked in the lab beside me passed away from malignant skin cancer. She had done quite a bit in her 23 years, more than most, but she still had a lot that she could accomplish. I knew she had not been doing well, but I didn't know it had gotten that bad, it had been awhile since we had talked.

This is The Fear we all have all cancer patients have. To fight hard, but it not be enough. But I will continue to push on, I have no other choice really.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Getting back into "normal" shape

After your body has been pounded with surgery, chemo, and/or radiation there are two big things standing in your way to getting "better". First, the physical aspect, and secondly the mental aspect.

First of all I will deal with the physical side today, for me, this seemed to be like a more straight forward thing to deal with.

By the time I was finished a year of cancer treatments, I was left with no hair, no muscle, and barely the ability to go up and down stairs. I was easily in the worst shape of my life. Further to that, my leg where I had surgery (which had not really healed properly) had issues, and I had a pretty bad hip burn from radiation. A lot of things to overcome.

The first thing I did was let my body rest. Not having treatments anymore allowed me to start recovering. I still did not eat a ton, or eat "regular" foods, but I gave myself about a month to heal. Not having chemo or radiation any more allowed my leg to heal up a bit more, and my radiation burn to heal up as well.

After this month I found my apatite was returning, and I physically could eat some food again. I made sure to eat as often as I could and importantly, very healthy. i used to eat healthy before I was sick, but this became imperative now. Since my body could tolerate food, I made sure to give it what it needed.

I found I could start exercising again as well. After a few more weeks. I bought a gym pass and started to go there a couple times a week. Nothing strenuous at first, I honestly could not do weights, so I would use the exercise bike a few times a week, at very low resistance, for about twenty minutes.

As the weeks rolled by, I was able to increase my biking and start doing weights. I had lost basically all my muscle mass when going through chemo, so the weights I started with were very low. Lifting a five pound weight with one arm was my starting point. That was how out of shape I was. I started with machine weights as well as these were much easier. The big thing was to not overdo it. One time I tried to increase the weight at a pace of what a "normal" person would and hurt myself. It took what seemed like forever to heal. After getting chemo your body does not recover as quickly as it did before, I learned this the hard way. Don't rush. As frustrating as it is to go slow, I found I basically had to. Anyone who doubts my determination though should see my scars, I will not quit.

As the months moved by I was able to incorporate free weights, and gradually increase the weight, as well as get off the stationary bike and on to a real road bike. This was a huge step for me. I started biking all the time, and after a few months went from doing 5 km rides to doing 120 km rides (albeit very slow, everyone tells me I do it on grit and determination rather then being in the shape to do it), but I achieved my goal of biking from Vancouver to Seattle this year. And with weights although still not doing anything impressive, I have built my body back up to a good starting point for weight training again.

This whole process took almost eight months, and is still going on eleven months later. It is slow, but it is getting better. I have continued to bike, and although slow, I am working on speed, and working on strength training now too. If anyone out there has tips and advice, I will gladly listen!

I look forward to being in "good" shape again, not to be proud of my body, I am proud of my body for withstanding cancer, but to gain a bit of my strength that was taken away from me. It is a long road, but I am determined to get back into great shape!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Giving Back

One way I have found to really help the "healing process" is to give back to the doctors, nurses and support staff who took care of me when I was so ill.

I have found a few ways to do this, some I did while I was still getting treated and some afterwards that continue to today.

The first way I tried to "give back" or help was to try and be as pleasant as possible to the staff. Anyone who works at a hospital has a hard job, and for the most part, they do try their best. As such I figured I would make their lives as easy as possible. It is easy to complain when you are that sick, but I found it would probably not help anything.

The other ways I started giving back was through raising money and volunteering for the BCCA (BC Cancer Agency). The fundraising I could do while I was sick, the volunteering not so much.

My plan for fundraising started by signing up for the "Ride to Conquer Cancer" (I know I post about this all the time, but it is important to me, Just by sending out emails, which I could easily do from the hospital where I was getting treated, to people I knew, I could start raising money to support cancer research. Within just a few short months, I was able to raise almost $5000 which was pretty exciting for me. And I could tell when I would talk to the staff, that they appreciated what I was trying to do for them. Putting money in their hands to help them do their jobs.

I have continued doing this event this year. Last year I rode as part of an already established team named "Riders for Ryders". It was a great success and the team raised about $480,000. however, this year , I have started my own team named "Team Phoenix". We are a much smaller team (only about ten so far) but we have already surpassed our first $1000 in fundraising. Pretty exciting stuff. I had the opportunity recently to say a few words at a ride orientation and it was great, people seemed really interested in helping out. Many were already signed up. I had trouble holding back tears when I talk about things like this, I know the money raised really helps people, and the event itself is a lot of fun, and easily one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I am looking forward to finding more ways to raise money for the BCCA and top my efforts from last year.

I also volunteer now to give back at the BCCA. I help out in radiation therapy and the funny part is, I actually work for my radiation oncologist, by complete accident. It is quite nice to work their, everyone has been really nice, and I feel like I am making a difference with patients, although I cannot say too much due to confidentiality agreement!

Most recently, I have started helping out with F--K Cancer (, an organization based out of Vancouver that promotes early detection of cancers. This has been a large amount of work, analyzing data from medical journals and reports to tabulate how successful treatment is in stage one of many types of "common" cancers in Canada and the USA. the people their have been great and I really encourage anyone reading this to check their site out, their is lots of great things on it! Soon I am hoping to help out with the "board" that is run from their as well, not sure what is fully entailed in this but it should be interesting!

These are just a few of the things I do now, it really has been a lot of work, but it has been really rewarding, more so then my actual job! I feel like the people who are trying to help out in these fields deserve all the support in the world. I am doing my part now, and hopefully it will give me some good karma at least!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


I count myself lucky and extremely blessed to have someone like Sara in my life. Sara was my fiance at the time, and is now, happily my wife.

When I first was diagnosed, it was hard on everyone. Me, my friends and my family, but one thing it taught me was who my friends were and who really cared about me. I always read about how some really good friends leave, and some you barely talked to might all of a sudden become a big part of your life again. I have to say I found this to be true. A lot of my good friends left, but the ones who stayed I have to say I am much closer to, and they are all great people.

I know what it is like to get sick, I do not know what it is like to see the person you care most about get that ill. I am sure it was a terrible thing to watch, but  Sara showed her courage and how amazing a person she was through the whole ordeal. I know it was very tough on her, but she never wilted under pressure.

The whole thing was tough for both of us. I used to take care of most of the household chores so Sara could focus on work. Everything changed when I got sick, plus we had so many more things that needed to be done. Sara took care of every appointment (made sure I knew when I was going, I was there on time, etc.). Any prescription I needed, she would go and get, when I wasn't feeling well she would contact all the emergency lines for me, and on top of that took care of things like groceries, cleaning, and anything else you could think of around the house.

Sara was, and is my rock. Writing a short blog post does nothing to give her the credit she deserves. But it is a start. Too much of this fell on her because we live really far away from our families (not that they didn't want to help, most times they were just too far away, but they came whenever they could!). She was a champ the whole time, and needless to say, I am not sure how well I would of done without her. It makes me so amazed and impressed by people who do it all on their own, unfortunately this happens too often.

She has stuck with me the whole time, and I owe her everything. Lately we have been traveling more, and going after bigger goals in life. Last year we did the Ride to Conquer Cancer in Vancouver and raised almost $9000 for cancer research, and we are doing it again this year! ( We got married, something I thought would never happen, and most importantly we are healing. It is a slow process, every day I realize how lucky I am to have her.

I wish everyone, sick or healthy had someone like Sara. When so many people left, she proved what an amazing person she is, not just to me, but to the world.
    Me and Sara at the Ride to Conquer Cancer start line (raining!)

Monday, 12 November 2012

Career Planning

Whatever job or career you have in mine can take a big hit when you get sick.

For me, before I ever had cancer, I was very driven in my work. I graduated with a B.Sc. in chemistry and had my Ph.D. in chemistry by the time I was 25. I was very motivated, and although not naturally the smartest man in the work, I was very hard working, I always felt that was my greatest asset. I tried to get my work done and help others in the field, it didn't always work, but I felt I gave it my best effort.

I mover from Halifax to Vancouver in 2010 to start working as a post-doctoral fellow at UBC. Not six months in I was diagnosed and all of a sudden I couldn't really work in my field anymore, doing lab work was basically impossible, I just was not in the shape to do it, as much as I may have wanted to at the start.

As the months were on with treatment, I found the thing I missed most about work was being around people. My views changed quite drastically on what "work" meant to me. Getting back to work was always a big motivator to me, but I began to question what that work would be. It requires you to be at your best to do what I did, and I wasn't.

Time went by, and I stopped thinking about completely, but when I finally did get back to work, at first it was great. But I began to ask myself if this is what I wanted to do. I still had my work ethic but many problems occurred.  First of all, I had spent so much time away, I had to relearn and regain confidence in my skills. I had a good friend in the lab (another post-doc) who helped me with much of this. It was nice to have someone not judge me when I got back to work, as most people seemed more interested to see how bad I was rather than help me get back to my old level. I will always be thankful for that.

One big obstacle I still have to overcome with finding work is how to get work without cancer being a "problem". Being sick like that does effect your job prospects (I have found), some people simply will not hire you with a condition like this, even when you are cured. It is very discouraging some days. The chemistry field in Canada is quite small, so people know what happened to me, I can't hide it, and it does effect my prospects for long term employment. But I am confident I will find opportunities out there.

Now a days, I feel I am motivated to work as hard but in more and different ways before. I will admit I didn't use to see the value in volunteer work, I wanted to get paid. Now I volunteer at the BCCA and it is fantastic. I work towards fundraising to cancer research. So far I have raised over $5000 at the Ride to conquer cancer And even more I intern finding and compiling data for to help them with their education about early detection of cancers.

All of these have added to what I want to do. Maybe one day I will get paid for those kind of things, but I find now maybe my career path is more complete. I can still work towards my goals in chemistry and I am doing things I never thought I would be involved in, and it is extremely rewarding. And most importantly, they make a difference to people living with illness.

 So although your career path will no doubt change. Try to stay positive. If nothing else you may try some new things and find out you like them, and that they do make a big difference in peoples lives.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

You are Better! Oh wait? What now? Am I?

The day treatment is completed, is a weird day.

You leave the hospital and if you were anything like me, you spent a lot of time there. Between chemo, radiation, doctors appointments, side effects, (I got sick all the time being having no white blood cells), in for pain, meeting with surgeons, going to surgery, recovery in hospitals and so many many more things.

Then all of sudden, you are leaving! Great! trust me when I say no one wanted to be done more with everything than me. But everyone around you wants it to be done too, and this is where I had some major problems. Everyone around me was so ready to be done, and I had a lot of side effects. More so than just health, I had the weakness, all that stuff, dealing with chemo fog (not being able to think clearly), survivor guilt (that is a weird one) and just dealing with a lot of fear and emotions you didn't have to deal with before. getting back to normal is a tough thing to do, something I still struggle with almost ten months after finishing treatment.

I went back to work as soon as I could because I needed the money. Perhaps too soon. My boss didn't understand, I couldn't really work nearly as well as I used too. I used to be a workhorse, and I simply couldn't when I got back, I didn't want to, I wanted to do other things, like have fun again. But I didn't really have that option. Work has been a constant source of frustration for me, but I won't get into it so much of the details. This as well carries on.

It strained relationships. I had someone ask me why I just didn't "get over it". trust me I would if I could. Check ups still stress me out, and I usually get really worked up around them.

Survivors guilt is weird. I am so happy to be alive, and be living my life much better than I did before. You just question sometimes why you were okay and why someone else wasn't.

Physically, I can't do a lot of things I used to. Soccer, baseball, football, can't do it. But I found cycling. This has been my escape. It is low impact, and I get to be by myself. It is one of the rare times I get to do that, I feeling I needed after a year of everyone else taking care of me. It gave me some of my freedom back. This is me and Sara biking in the rain at the Enbridge Ride to Conquer Cancer 2012. I am happy to say we are doing this again, biking from Vancouver to Seattle to raise money for cancer research.

Sometimes I get really short with people when they complain about how bad their day is, it could be worse and I know that, but I can't fault others for not knowing how bad it can be. It is a good thing that some people do not have to deal with things like this. Everyone has problems, and I think I need to respect that a bit more. Just because I had big problems doesn't mean others are not important.

Problems and side effects linger. And to be honest most people don't get it in my experience, but not because they don't want to. I try to deal with it the best I can, and get help, but I can't always find it.

I just try to make the best of everyday, as best I can. Smiling helps.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Radiation Therapy

The radiation treatment I received was over about six weeks. It was a long and involved process, seems almost more complicated than chemo but it was more straightforward for me.

The process started with getting my leg (where the radiation site was) tattooed so they could align my leg for radiation each day. This process was pretty straightforward. Each day (five times a week) I would go to the hospital and lie on a bed for a few minutes and get my treatment. I had to lay in a "body mould" so I would not move and be in the same exact spot each time.

Radiation itself has its own set of side effects, but all in all I found it much more tolerable than chemotherapy. Some people get quite tired or have other problems, but as I had finished chemo and the area being radiated was on my leg and not near any internal organs it was not so bad. I didn't feel tired I believe because my body was feeling so much better and recovering from not having chemo any more.

The radiation treatment was very quick. It was done in three different angles for about forty seconds each time, getting aligned properly is the longest part. The radiation therapists got good quite quickly at aligning me properly.

The radiation burn started after about two weeks. It became quite painful, like a really bad sunburn, and given that it was just about on my hip, walking was pretty painful, so I tried not to as often as I could. However, I had to go back to work, so this was not always an option. They had creams for it, but I think it did more to prevent infection than pain.

I met with the doctor each week as well, just to make sure it wasn't getting infected, and it went by rather quickly. The most awkward part was given that it was on my leg, I had to "disrobe" for each treatment, I am a shy person, and this was one of my biggest hurdles, but the therapists were very respectful which really helped (I also had no other real option but to get used to it!). The other hard part was I saw a lot of kids getting treated through radiation therapy where I was at. I think this is one of the things that really drives me to do the fundraising I am doing for cancer research, I felt unfair and young at 26 to go through it, seeing parents watch their infant or child go through cancer is a whole new level of unfair.

After treatment it took about three-four weeks for the skin to heal. It was burnt quite badly, but it is healed now. There is a patch on my leg where hair will never grow and I have the tattoos to remind me of it, and my leg is still a bit stiff, but these are all "normal" side effects with it.

At the end of the day, it was not as bad as I thought it would be. Maybe I had just gotten used to feeling like garbage. But you learn what kind of person you are going through something like this.

You realize how strong you can be.