I spend my 30th birthday in a hospital bed, separated by a curtain from a man who cannot walk. Two days earlier, I was diagnosed with cancer, in the form of a gastrointestinal stromal tumour. To give you the gist of it, there is an ugly mass of cells known as a sarcoma, 5cm x 7cm x some unknown third dimension, pushing against my duodenum, near my stomach and pancreas and liver and probably brain. It appears that whatever I have is the good kind of cancer, similar to the good Hodgkin’s, so it should be gone in no time. Along with my entire stomach.
Six days previous, I’m skiing in Whistler with no symptoms whatsoever. By Wednesday, I develop sharp pains in my abdomen and cannot sleep at all, unless those hallucinations caused by the rapidly alternating fever and chills are in fact dreams. As Thursday rolls around I’m coughing uncontrollably with a constant headache, full-frontal dizziness, and most disconcertingly, an unqualified absence of energy. Each step I take requires a much needed resting period, which is pretty foolish. My attempt at a jog, intended to push through the sickness and cure myself of whatever ailed me, is curtailed by my inability to secure a sneaker to my foot before passing out.
I stumble into a Vancouver walk-in clinic while having a terrible time, and after describing the last few days in my life to a doctor, I’m advised to go home and use a neti pot. Making it plainly obvious I’m unsatisfied with this as a remedy, I push for something, anything else, which ends up being simple blood work.
Turns out, my hemoglobin level had fallen to 68, which is apparently low af. Once the results are relayed to me, I’m sent to the emergency room, stat, where it’s determined the updated hemoglobes are an abysmal 59, meaning there is some definite internal bleeding happening in ma gut. In order to prevent me from dying, I am ordered an immediate blood transfusion. I inform the doctor that I am a Jehovah’s Witness and as such I refuse the treatment, seeing as how blood represents life and only God is the giver of life. My doctor then tells me he is God, and in my haze I believe him. With that, the giver of life proceeds with the 3 units of O+ straight into my lifeless body. And oh man, does it feel good. The enhanced oxygen levels are euphoric. I am getting high off of air supply. I am reborn.
Once I regain sufficient strength from the stranger’s blood, it’s time for someone to determine what was causing this absurd drop in oxygenated blood, so I’m admitted for an extended stay, late checkout acceptable. Over the next week, I have several hundred doctors, fake doctors and nurses interrogate me incessantly: “Where’s the blood you’ve been losing? C’mon, it’s gotta be somewhere. You’ve been vomiting blood, haven’t you? Or is it coming out your butt side? Where’s the blood, buddy!?” There is no blood. None that I can see. I am asked the same questions over and over, and my answers become automatic. “Feb2686. Twelve drinks. This morning.”
There is a lot of waiting as myriad tests are performed on me. I’m given a couple endoscopies, which I don’t remember thanks to the fentanyl and marzipan concoctions that come to me highly recommended. The bone marrow biopsy is interesting. While waiting for a couple of their colleagues who had never seen one performed before, some doctors pass the time by discussing why they had gone into their chosen program. “So that I can see crazy stuff like this,” was my favourite response, well within my earshot. The actual procedure involves a doctor drilling a needle into my hip bone, which requires a degree of brute force one does not normally associate with modern medicine, needed because I lack osteoporosis. For the CT scan, I’m given liquid contrast, which incites a sensation of urinating, and then led into an expensive white doughnut. Somebody who knows how to read the white doughnut result’s data finds a mass of cells pushing up against my small intestine that isn’t supposed to be there. An endoscopic ultrasound confirms its malignancy, and just like that, I’m a god damn cancer patient.
The night I find out about the tumour, I tell the hospital people that I’m going to leave for a few hours, and I go to see Ron Funches say funny things on a stage in a bar. They resist, but in the end realize they can’t really say no to me. I mean, c’mon, I have cancer! This marks my first playing of the cancer card. My mother was able to subtly play the same one a few months earlier to get me to come home for Christmas and also to avoid attending unwanted social events, so I did learn a little from her.
Last year I found out I have a rare mutation on my CDH1 gene, putting me at a much greater risk of one day developing stomach cancer. The recommended treatment is a prophylactic gastrectomy, or full stomach removal, which many members of my family have had previously, some successfully, some not so much. In this approach, the esophagus is connected to the small intestine so that the digestive system maintains its beginning and end. While the surgical oncologist contends that there is no literature to suggest that my tumour and this mutation are connected, she concedes when I make the assumption that I will now be added to that literature to demonstrate that they are.
The recommended treatment for the tumour is a resection of the the entire cell glob which might also take bits off my small intestine liver and pancreas, and whatever else the medical masochists want for their ceremonies (probably brain). The blade-happy surgeons figure that while they have me nice and sliced up doing that, they might as well get rid of the stomach as well.
I probably want the doctors to think I’m smart. I’m surprised at myself for how much I remember from Mr. Colford’s high school Biology class. Besides that, I’m learning a lot. Like Alan Watts says, “Hospitals should be arranged in such a way as to make being sick an interesting experience. One learns a great deal sometimes from being sick.” The first thing I learn is that siechtumsschulung relates to the educative effects of serious illness. While I’m aware of the universality of hospital food being terrible, it’s almost absurd what the Tray Lady brings me, and I’m not allowed to refuse her offerings.
Another thing is that when you find out you have cancer, you’re supposed to tell people, which is not something I want to deal with. I had intended to let a bunch of people back home in Newfoundland know, but after the first of these conversations totally bummed me out, I decided that people would either find out from other sources or possibly not at all. Who will be offended, even secretly, that I didn’t tell them? Hopefully I set myself up so that the people I love the most won’t mind, but maybe not everyone will buy into that. Obviously I tell my immediate family, who comes up to visit me instead of a planned vacation to Colombia that we were all supposed to go on, whose precise dates happened to coincide with my hospital stay.
Before all of this, I’d written a lot about dying, mainly out of curiosity and because I find it fascinating and amusing how much people are unwilling to accept death as the inevitability that it is. I’ve written a fake will, a description of my last day, my last meal, my last words, my obituary, the minutes of my own funeral, the song to be played as I die, a friggin’ journal entry where the writer has cancer. In Grade 9 I wrote a speech in which I pretended that I had just received a terminal cancer diagnosis, in order to properly describe the stages of grief. Many people were crying at the end, when I finally came clean just to get them to shut up. When I was depressed in high school, I would fantasize about getting cancer for the attention. I also have a lot of cancer material for my fictional stand up career, from before I was diagnosed, which will now need to be updated. I assume this is the universe having a little joke with me about all of that.
With surgery set for Monday, I am given a weekend pass. My family doctor told me to eat and drink everything I wanted for the next 48 hours, so I did. On Saturday my friends and I enjoyed a full day “Goodbye Stomach!” party, when we toured the city eating and drinking our faces off. You can partially relive our adventures on Instagram under the hashtags “HastaLaVistaBelly”. Everyone wears a t-shirt decked out with my cartoon likeness, which was created previously for a laugh, not for this occasion specifically. At brunch, everyone is disappointed the tumour had yet to be named. Using the recently heard popular 90s song “All For You” as a trigger, we eventually settle on Hazel. The rest of the night is a pile of fun, and then on Sunday I return to the hospital.
Next in line to be brought into the operating room, I hear my surgeon from down the hall. “Cancel it. We’re cancelling the operation.” It turns out the tumour is located in a more precarious position than initially thought. The surgery is postponed at the last moment, and a new course of action is prescribed. I will undergo some chemotherapy with the goal of shrinking the tumour before surgery to make it easier to remove, as well as be put on a euryphagous diet intended to make me gain weight in order to offset the eventual stomach loss. And with that, I am discharged.
As an aside, this is my first time experiencing what is actually meant by free healthcare in Canada, and I couldn’t be more impressed and grateful at how the whole process was handled by everyone I was in contact with at Vancouver General Hospital.
Stay tuned for part deux to find out what happened after Ian was released from hospital!
Spoiler: I’m still alive. Also, here’s an album I made inspired by all of this.