For the past two months finding topics that I can be truly interested about on television, social media, and in my real day to day life has been difficult, if not impossible. Every good thing I can find is personally torpedoed by my own brain. It’s a gift, really, the ability to find the absolute worst in everything and, at the same time, maintain friendships and not having family disown you. Most people don’t want to be around that kind of crazy, so I consider myself blessed. Hey…I just slipped up and I got all positive and shit.
Listen, I’ll just do a cold opening. I have cancer. Colon cancer. Specifically Rectosigmoid cancer.
Yep, let that sink in. Not just for you, the reader, but for me as well. I still find it hard to comprehend. Sadly, I am behind in the whole acceptance stage of the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Kinda still stuck on anger. Sailed through denial, thanks to a doctor who had the bedside manner of Dracula, but getting past anger has been difficult. This should NEVER have happened to me. As those of you that know me, I am THAT annoying person that can pontificate endlessly on clean eating. There have been many times that I have expertly eye rolled a dining companions food choice. Turns out that perhaps I should have been enjoying Skittles and donuts for breakfast and downing lots of Hostess Ho Ho’s for snacks. According to my doctors, 50% of all cancers are familial. Nothing you can do about that, mister!! All the healthy eating in the world cannot trump genetics….just ask Angelina Jolie.
Here are the facts about my cancer:
- My biological father died of colon cancer. This meant that my doctors wanted me to start screening at 49, and at five year intervals after that.
- I had a colonoscopy in 2010 that turned up nothing, but statistically 5% of all colonoscopies miss polyps that may or may not turn cancerous. I was 49.
- Had another colonoscopy on September 17th, 2015, because I am a compliant and annoyingly precise person.
- Was told by the GI that she had found a small polyp in my ascending colon and snagged it, but observed a mass in my sigmoid colon on her way out….She carelessly said: “and oh, by the way it is cancer and I can’t believe you did not notice anything. (Blame the victim anyone?) Also…looks like it has been there for quite a few years, probably missed on your 2010 colonoscopy”. Ya…let me introduce you to Dracula. She’s a real gem. Got sent for blood work immediately. Surprised she did not just sink her fangs into me and do it herself.
- A week later, on September 24th, I was told by this same GI that the biopsy confirmed her coldly expert opinion and I would need a CT scan to stage the cancer. Her people would be in touch with my people about that. My blood work was spectacular. Nothing even remotely out of whack. I started to wonder if she had the right ass. While sitting there with my husband and two sisters, I meekly asked her if I could call her in the coming days if I had any questions or concerns. She looked at me like I had lost my mind. Nope. As my sister said to me later, she could not wash her hands quicker of me. Just a lovely and charming person, really.
- Told I could not get a CT scan until October 13th because, well,….CANADA.
- Had a vacation booked for Puerto Rico, with very dear friends, from September 30th to October 10th that I no longer wanted to go on, but since no amount of begging, pleading or crying could get me an earlier date for a CT scan, I had a choice. I could stay at home and be properly depressed, scared and angry OR I could still be those same three things but in a much warmer climate with alcohol being delivered to me poolside whilst working on my vitamin D. Obvs, the latter.
- As of September 30th, the day of our departure for warmer climes, I still did not have an appointment with a surgeon for a consult, because, well….CANADA.
- During our vacation, I got a call from Dracula’s office staff that I had an appointment with a surgeon for a consult on October 20th. We all drank to that. I MIGHT have celebrated with three mojitos, but who can be sure?
- Got my CT scan on October 13th, which was an AWESOME experience. I mean, at what other event can you be forced to ingest some loathsome contrast, get injected by dye, AND get three years worth of “walking around on this earth” radiation? Bloody brilliant!!!
- With my two sisters and husband in tow, I went to see my surgeon on October 20th. I was able to exhale THIRTY-FOUR!!!!!! days worth of fear when he told me that my CT was good. No distant metastatic disease appeared to be present. However, since Dracula had failed to order a rectal contrast, he could not stage the cancer. Kicked myself for not questioning that. After all, even though I’m not a GI, I could play one on TV. I like to think that I could see my surgeon condemning this GI’s gross mistake with his body language, but I was probably being fanciful. He said the cancer would only be staged when he removed it and had it biopsied. At that point I would know whether I would need chemo and radiation. I have since been told it could take a week to get the results back after surgery. Not a problem as I now have a degree in waiting, with a specialization in stress.
- Person who had interpreted the CT scan had recommended an MRI to properly stage the cancer, but since the surgeon and I did not want to wait a million years for that, he suggested a sigmoidoscopy to tattoo the tumor (that will be hereafter referred to as Sigmund) and the surrounding tissue to facilitate a laparoscopic surgical approach. This tattooing should have been done by my GI the second she found the mass. Mistake number 2,678 for her. Sigmoidoscopy booked for November 5th and surgery booked for November 16th. Yep. TWO BLOODY MONTHS from cancer discovery to finally getting surgery to remove it. So all in all, SIXTY-ONE days of adrenaline fueled, white knuckling, heart pounding fear. Well, that’s one way of getting in a cardio workout.
If any of you think that is quick, you’ve lived in Canada for far too long and have become inured to socialized medicine. If I had been back in Raleigh, it would have taken ten days from discovery to surgery. I know this because I called my doctor back in Raleigh. If anyone reading this wants to stupidly point out that healthcare is FREEEEEE here in Canada, just shut up, go home and delete my blog site from your browser. I cannot deal with the idiocy and I don’t care about your uninformed opinion. Unless you have lived in both countries AND experienced both systems, you just don’t know what you are talking about. Even my own surgeon gave an interview to a newspaper where he clearly states that wait times can be UP TO A YEAR for some surgeries, and that wait times can vary hospital to hospital. I’m not saying that once you finally get medical attention it is sub par. From from it. But the wait times are completely unacceptable. Oh, and by the way, healthcare is NOT free here. We pay for it, and personally we pay more here than we ever did in the two times we lived in the US. Besides….Obamacare. Mini rant over.
Let me insert here that my surgeon is wonderful. He really, really is. How many of these surgeries has he done? Apparently he stopped counting at 1500. Along with being an accomplished surgeon, he is the Chief of Staff at the hospital where I am having the surgery. Prior to that he was Head of Surgery at a group of hospitals in a nearby city. In addition to being a highly regarded colorectal surgeon and educator, he is also a Royal College Board of General Surgery Examiner and is Regional Head of Surgical Oncology for the Local Health Integration Network. He is currently at the rank of Associate Professor in the Department of Surgery at McMaster University. He speaks plainly and I cried tears of joy when my family told me that he had taken the time to speak with them after my sigmoidoscopy (while I was out like a drunken sailor, though nicely wrapped up in warm blankets in recovery) and told them that there was typically a 5% chance of a stoma and colostomy bag in situations like mine which is already pretty low statistically, but for me he was reducing that to just a 1% chance. Obviously, things could still go pear shaped during surgery and nothing is guaranteed, but after hearing that, I was able to go from Defcon 1 to Defcon 3. If that confuses you, Bing it.
The surgery itself is called a Laparoscopic Sigmoid Anterior Resection. Fancy talk for NOT gutting me open like a wild salmon. The entire procedure was laid out for me
when I went to my pre-operative
scarefest meeting, and while I’d much rather be in Vegas, like I was this time last year, getting Sigmund out is preferable to dying of cancer. It is a HUGE, HUGE surgery, something that was pointed out to me several times at my meeting by the nurse who I swear was channeling Donald Trump. The surgery itself will take at least three hours and I will be in hospital for five days, not counting the day of admission. I was told to make sure I stay ahead of the pain….ermmmmmm, not exactly a problem for someone who, if it were legal, would opt to have a Valium drip when having my toenails clipped. Of course now I am obsessing about how loudly I will have to yell for the nurses, who are grossly underpaid and are often working with a skeleton staff, to GIVE ME MY MEDS!!!!! Luckily I have some friends who are nurses and they have given me great advice on how NOT to aggravate the nursing staff. First on the list is not to yell…….ruh ro……
So…..at the time of writing this I am a few days away from surgery. Some of you already know about my situation, not from me directly, but from a few very good friends, who took the burden of telling my story from my shoulders. It is not hard to write about it, but extremely hard to talk about it as I tend to dissolve into a giant ball of snot, hiccups and tears. While on vacation in Puerto Rico and talking
to my good friend Carol about my cancer, I made quite a spectacle of myself on a stunning balcony looking out over the magnificent ocean. Only over the promise of a HUGE cocktail did I finally stop my dramatics and take some paper towels and dry up the pool of salty tears from beneath my chair. Oh yes, and a huge hug and completely sympathetic ear, along with a really soft and comfortable shoulder from Carol helped as well.
Most of you reading this will be completely surprised. Listen, I thought long and hard about who should know and when. I went from not wanting ANYONE to know except for my husband and my two sisters, to THIS BLOG!!! Quite a 180. When it became obvious that I was going to go to Puerto Rico, I had to tell our traveling companions, Phil and Carol, as my constant depression combined with spontaneous crying jags would have aroused suspicion. Well, Phil probably would not have noticed, but Carol…for sure! While there, Carol said something to me that has stuck with me until today, when I decided to start my blog. She said that I had a whole army of friends out there that would want to send prayers, love and support which could only serve to help me, not hurt me. By keeping it to myself, and then perhaps telling people after it was all over, would only serve to mask the true me to my friends, who would probably say (or think) “Oh, how brave of her to just go through it all by yourself” or “Oh my God, how did she do that”? or “How purposeful she was, not burdening any friends with her story”. The more I thought about Carol’s words, the more I realized that she was right. (Carol is always right) Who am I kidding? I am NOT brave, I am NOT keeping it together most days and I am certainly NOT the kind of person who can do this alone. Writing about this experience is cathartic and GOOD for me, and as Carol pointed out wisely, I DO have an amazing group of friends that would want to help me. I even had one friend, after Carol told her my story, who arranged to have a candle lit and a prayer said for me at the University of Notre Dame church. I DO feel that love and support, so to those of you who were told by those few good friends of mine…THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.
I do want to write a few words about my family. Obviously my husband Tim has been my rock. Nothing ever freaks him out, not even this. When I have been hanging from the ceiling from my fingernails, Tim has calmly told me to go get a manicure. He has held me tightly as I shook uncontrollably in bed, scared out of my mind that the cancer had metastasized throughout my body. I have no idea how I would be dealing with this without him. Secretly, however, I think he is glad I will be in hospital for a week as it will keep me out of the stores. My slightly younger sister Wendy has been right there with me from the beginning. There was no one else I even thought to call when I first heard this devastating news. At times, it has been hard to accept her support because this is NOT the dynamic of our relationship, at least from my point of view. I’m much more comfortable when I am the one that is called upon for advice and support. Wendy has put almost her entire life, both work and personal, on hold so that she could be with me through almost every appointment and procedure. During the scariest time of my entire life…there she is…the annoying sister that I often wished away when we were younger. How incredibly stupid was I EVER to even have those thoughts? She has literally (in the surgeon’s exam room) and figuratively held my hands during a non stop high anxiety filled two months. Her voice has been one of reason when I imagined a million horrible things that were going to happen to me.
My much younger sister Sarah has come back into my life because of this sucktastic year. First it was mum’s death, then our step dads stroke and now my cancer. Through it all Sarah has been the calm and reasonable one, telling me over and over again how strong I am…how CAPABLE I am (the inspiration for the title of my blog incidentally) and how it is OKAY to be upset, nervous, angry….etc, etc. Sarah has just allowed me to BE, no judging, something that I am completely unfamiliar with, being the Judgy McJudgyson I am. She has rearranged her work schedule to take me to very scary appointments, and has been available for what seems like a million phone calls. I’d also like to thank my sister Lindsey. Even though she is far away in England, her phone calls and emails have been most welcome. She is dealing with her own personal family problems currently, but we have been able to support each other through humor and compassion.
One last thing…..I’ll probably “Peace out” after this post and not post again until after surgery. I will be writing about my recovery and how my current fitness level factors into it because this is ultimately going to be an annoying fitness blog. Spoiler alert: my surgeon has HIGH expectations for me based on my lack of fat and fitness level, so perhaps the fact that I did NOT constantly eat skittles,donuts and Ho Ho’s will completely pay off!! If anyone decides to comment either here or on Facebook, do NOT be offended if I do not reply or acknowledge you. Rest assured I will be gratefully and eagerly reading all messages of support, but getting back to you at this point will be much too emotionally overwhelming. As my friends know, I do NOT do emotion very well.
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I knew something was up, Gosh my intuition is spot on! When you did not post since the election, and the odd small comment “somewhere somebody is having a worse day” it could not have possibly been just the Trudeau devastation and I said that to Scott… something is up! We are a colon cancer surviving family with Scott’s mum given only 50% chance back in the 90’s. She survived and her sons and eventually my children will have to follow up every 5 years from the age of 40. Your experience with the every 5 year “miss” will be passed on. And we can only sympathize with the CANADA part. Since we are blessed to have the MAYO. But so very glad you are comfortable with your surgeon. We will PRAY for you Gail! You are not alone in this. I know another colon cancer fb friend who is also a dual Canada/US citizen….. I will pass on your blog. You go sistah!
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Do you know something.. You are amazing…Truly amazing …. It is About time the world can share your humanity.
Your ‘secret’ and your humorously frank take on Sigmund is out there laid bare for all to see. Don’t take me literally, but Sigmund is a pile of sh*t in your life when you don’t need it. If it ever gets plopped into a specimen jar then I will provide the coordinates if you shoot it with an ICBM.
I was wondering though if ‘channeling Donald Trump’ meant what I think it does and Hostess Ho Ho’s is a name of a sleazy Bordello? Just askin??
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Lindsey, sometimes a Hostess Ho HO is just a Hostess Ho Ho. Think Tim Tams, but not as good.
I have a million things I want to say to you Gail . . . well, maybe a hundred. I’m shocked to hear this BUT I totally agree with your sister that sharing the news will be cathartic & invite your army of friends to send positive energy & thoughts & prayers like I’m doing now.
Gail, you can do anything you set your mind to & I KNOW you will kick this cancer’s ass – no pun intended.
God speed my beautiful friend. Take care of yourself & I look forward to the next chapter of your blog – you have a gift!
huge healing hugs
Linda (Tisdale) Browning
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You are an inspiration. You are stronger than pretty much any person I know, and I like to think I have gained some of my strength from watching you and learning from you. I am proud of you, for laying yourself bare, and exposing your vulnerability in this way. For allowing your loved ones, friends, family, and strangers to pray for you, to learn from you, to be inspired by you. I have said it before and will say it again. You will kick cancer’s ass, because I don’t think your spirit knows how to be truly broken. Even at your lowest, deep down, there is a fighter. You might muffle the voice but you can not change your nature.
When you begin to doubt yourself, look to see how far you have come. Remember all the battles you have won, the diversity you have faced, and the fears you have overcome. This is one mountain to climb on your journey and soon, you will be above and down the other side. I wish I was there to hold your hand, but know that I am doing so from afar. You are in my thoughts and in my prayers!!!
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I am Michelle’s friend (American-Canadian) and I truly sympathize with you regarding healthcare. Having said that, it sounds to me like you have an excellent surgeon looking after you. I would love to share with you that Oakville has a fantastic colon cancer support group, and the convenor is an angel on earth. Her contact information is below.
Director of Education / Clinical Information
COLORECTAL CANCER ASSOCIATION OF CANADA
2 Bloor Street West, Suite 700
TEL: 1 877 50 COLON (26566) ext. 232
Meanwhile, you are in my thoughts and prayers. Based on what I know about you so far, you are an incredible advocate for yourself! I look forward to your future posts.
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Thank you for all that information. It was wonderful of you to take the time to do that. Michelle truly has some amazing friends.
what a fantastic write up… thank you very much very sharing your inside out. it helps meto better understand a friend of mine that some years back was diagnosed with lung cancer… weird as he never smoked… he has been under the knife twice and i just wish for him to be as upbeat as you are… thx once again…
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Thank you for your positive comments. it is a choice to stay upbeat, but it can be very challenging. it is always difficult getting a cancer diagnosis, but I think it is even harder when you have been living a healthy lifestyle. My prayers are with your friend with lung cancer. The best thing you can do is just be there for him. Thank you for signing up to follow my blog. Cheers to you!
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Thank you for such a personal write up. The way you value your fitness and your army of loving friends and family will serve you well. You are inspiring.
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What a nice thing to write. Thank you.
YES!! Thank you for being hilarious and real! Peace. Love. Gratitude 4Life
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Thanks for reading!!!
I’ve just read your latest blog post. Having read this i have found your latest post very inspiring. Keep up the good work.
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