Today marks my one year anniversary of something I would not care to “celebrate” but I do not want to pass it over either. I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, a hybrid cancer, which had the blend of high levels of estrogen, which is the basis of the development of breast cancer, and equally high levels of keratin which are signs of carcinoma and sarcoma. They had my name and a serial number as an identifier of this mysterious cancer. October the 6th will live on as a memorial stone of an evolution of events dating back to 9th April, when my wife Lori-Anne first discovered a lump on my right breast, between my right nipple to my armpit. October 6th was the day that Dr. Husein informed me that the biopsy from the ultrasound scope had detected cancer but the good news was that no cancer was found in the two lymph node tissue samples.
From that date onward, what had taken close to six months to figure out would accelerate remarkably through a process of surgery and radiation therapy. By the 13th of October, I knew I was going to be having surgery to remove the tumor that had grown outside my body, and was larger than a large avocado. On that front there was a bit of relief that we were moving forward to do something about this issue.
I had my surgery on the 18th of November, and went on disability leave from my employment. The surgery went well and the surgeon said that everything was good, there were wide margins and they got all of the cancer tissue. They sent the tissue to three hospitals due to its rarity. At this point no one knew what it was. Some people at the local hospital, Grand River Hospital, their pathology department could not make an accurate determination, from the ultrasound biopsy. So sending the tissue to Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, and Toronto General Hospital as well as Mount Sinai in Toronto allowed other pathologists to examine the tissue and make their own determinations. This went on for about six weeks.
During this time I was doing my level best to rest up and heal up. I did not know what was going on about the diagnosis until my surgeon, Dr. Husein asked me if I had spoken to Princess Margaret Hospital. I had not spoken to them since I had gone down to their hospital for a consultation with one of their specialist oncologists in mid October. So I called the hospital and they arranged an appointment for me in the first week of January 2016.
Lori-Anne and I went down a couple of days after the New Year and visited with the specialist who brought into play another radiology oncologist, Dr. Fyles. He became my lead oncologist for my case. They discussed that day that no one was able to determine the type of this mysterious cancer, and they called me their “mystery man” because no one had seen this form of hybrid cancer before. They informed me that there has been ongoing dialogue between pathologists who all reviewed the tissue samples and made their own observations and conclusions. Even the provincial head pathologist for the Province of Ontario was in on my case. So pathologists argued to treat this cancer that ravaged my body as a form of MBC (male breast cancer), while others viewed it as a sarcoma and others as carcinoma. The medical team I had felt rather strongly that it was not breast cancer. The only thing to them that would make it breast cancer is the fact that when an incision had been made to drain what was thought of to be an abscess in September, what grew out of that incision was this tumor. The local to them was the only connecting link to “breast cancer.” It’s the physical place where the cancer grew out of my body. Their own assessment was that it was some form of sarcoma leaning to a form of carcinoma. They held this view and belief, simply because of the rapid rate of growth of the tumor once it was exposed to the air. In six weeks it had grown from the size of a couple of quarters to a large avocado. By the time I had surgery in the middle of November it had more than doubled in size and was like a large melon. All that cancer tissue hanging on my chest, sitting there getting daily dressing changes while doctors decided what to do. I was so thankful for the surgeon who said, “No matter what they determine, that mass has to go. So we will do the surgery and let them figure what to do afterwards. We need to remove this thing.” Dr. Husein knew exactly how I felt on the matter and assured me he would take care of me. And, he did just that on November 18th.
Dr. Fyles examined me on that visit in early January and said that they recommended radiation therapy, and that it should begin as soon as my wounds were healed completely, with no leaking body fluids coming through the incision area. He also informed us that he felt that chemo therapy would not be beneficial for the cancer I was dealing with.
During this time from December to January we were encouraged by the medical team at Princess Margaret to consult with a medical oncologist (code name for chemo doctor) at Grand River Regional Cancer Centre in Kitchener. That was one bad situation. The doctor (who shall remain nameless) was nothing short of a bully. She was wanting me to start chemo therapy right away. She had studied under Dr. Fyles and said that the cancer I had was breast cancer. Meanwhile I had already gone through the reports of other pathologists who could not agree that it was breast cancer. I informed the doctor that our case was being handled by Princess Margaret Hospital. She was so stubborn that she tried to coerce and manipulate her way through going to my oncologist. My doctor, Dr. Fyles stood his ground and defended my decision. This doctor from Grand River still tried to get her own way, even the day before I was to go to Princess Margaret she was calling me at home and trying to get me to change my mind. When I got to Princess Margaret that third week of January to start my radiation therapy (30 treatments over a span of six weeks), Dr. Fyles assured me he would speak with the doctor back in Kitchener Waterloo. As far as he was concerned I was to just let it go and we would put all our energy and focus on my treatment schedule and protocol.
The radiation treatments at first were just fine, but within ten days I really noticed the redness from the radiation and its effects on my skin. I had to follow the protocol of bathing my radiated skin to preserve and protect the skin tissue. I had as well to apply an ointment that is usually used for serious diaper rashes. It apparently works extremely well on irradiated skin. I had to do this every day to prevent the dryness and cracking of the skin.
I found over the course of a couple of weeks that I was beginning to lose focus and attention. I could keep it for ten to 15 minutes of concentration and then I would just get exhausted from the effort to do so. I found myself taking naps after radiation therapy, and a need to go to bed earlier than normal. Some nights were restless nights where I could not find that sweet spot to fall asleep and rest. Sometimes I didn’t need to. I would put my head on the pillow, and I would just fall asleep. I had brought some books to read, but found my reading to be sparse, little to next to nothing as far as pages read or even a reliable comprehension of what I had just read. This is how hard the radiation hit me.
The redness from the radiation was one thing, the other was the tiredness, and the last thing was a short tolerance level for the shortcomings of others or irritable preventable things that happen every day and you normally just dismiss them. Some things would irritate me, and just keep grating at me over the day. I had to practice mindfulness, and focus and just call it what it is and let go and control my thoughts instead of letting my emotions reign free and impact my thoughts. So I began to carefully monitor my thoughts, my attitudes, and began to see change as I attempted to be positive and an encouragement to others that I met while at Princess Margaret Lodge and at the radiation clinic. I noticed a change within the week which lasted throughout the six weeks. It was work, especially when focus and tiredness played havoc on the mind and on the body and emotions. But I was able to overcome, moment by moment, and to stay living my best in each moment.
I became close to the people I associated with while at the Princess Margaret Lodge, and at the clinic at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. It is amazing how there is no difficulty in connecting with people. There is no pretense. We are all there for the same reasons. We are there for various cancer therapies that are being utilized to neutralize and destroy the cancer and give us a fighting chance to live a longer and more fulfilling life. Nothing is guaranteed.
Nothing is guaranteed. Just over the last month I have heard of two people I had known, one a young man who had battled childhood cancer and after a decade the cancer came back and it took his life. Another was a woman who had battled through cancer over a two year span and she too passed away within a couple of months of leaving the Princess Margaret Lodge. These people may have left us physically, but they remain in our memories and in our thoughts and in our minds. They are never far from our thoughts. I still remember fondly my first born daughter Carragh, who battled cancer (leukemia) from age two until age nine. Over seven years she fought. She lived life to the full and she still inspires me to live life and enjoy the life I have.
There are absolutely no guarantees. Not just for those who have battled cancer, but for everyone, every perfectly healthy human being, has no guarantee of seeing tomorrow. People are born every minute of the day, and every minute of the day people die. Death does not discriminate against age, gender, ethnic origin, wealth or lack of wealth, or anything else. Death just takes lives, from the very young to the very old. It cannot be immunized against. Everyone dies. It cannot be bargained with. Everyone will eventually die. It is the one journey every person ever born has been given a free ticket for the ride. Whether you like it or not, you have your ticket, and you won’t ever know when it is going to get punched.
Here I am today, a year removed from that diagnosis. I can go back to that doctor’s office in my mind and I can see exactly where I was sitting, when he told me the words. I can visualize it all in slow motion. I can hear every syllable of every word as clearly as anything. I can see my wife’s focused stoic expression, keeping herself together and asking all the questions I should be asking. I feel like I am there, but I am not there. I feel like I am in a surreal space, and that this is going to be just fine and it will go away. Inside I feel a voice saying, “It’s OK. You knew this was coming. You will be fine. You can handle it. Hold it together.” Sure enough, I manage to hold it together. But inside I am numbed. I can’t really feel much of anything. I don’t feel fear. I don’t feel anger. I am a bit stunned, but that is about it. It is shock. It is my mind and my emotions coping with the news I have just heard. I replayed that scene today. I did not even have to try. It just replayed all by itself.
Your body knows when there has been trauma and knows when there have been life changing events and circumstances. My body knew that today, and it just took a little trigger to remember. All it took was the date. I remember most things by dates and this day was no different. I also remembered leaving the doctor’s office and getting in the car. Lori-Anne reached over and took my hand. I looked at her and I began to cry. We embraced and cried together. Our lives were forever changed in that moment. Cancer we had learned through Carragh’s battle, is not just the battle that affects the person with the disease, it is a family disease and ravages the fellow family members and affects everyone in the family unit.
Everyone has to confront their own fears about death, dying, disease, and what it means to live moment by moment and to rest in hope and not give in to despair. This is everyone’s battle within the family unit. We knew that in the mid 1980’s through the early 1990’s. Now it was in our faces again. We all had to face it. Face it with courage and face it knowing that we live lives filled with wonder and awe every day and that none of us have the guarantee of another sunrise. So here we were crying and getting it all out of our systems, taking in breaths and breathing in and out, gentle tears flowing, not saying many words, but holding each other’s gaze, and just loving each other in that moment in time and space. I have never experienced a holier and more awe filled moment than that, knowing that God was in the midst of all this with us, and he was not taken by surprise by it. We knew we were not alone. We knew that no matter what came, there would be love enough and grace enough to face it.
Here today, I reflect even on the beginning of the week. Last weekend I was thinking that this one year anniversary was coming up. I knew it then. I was watching the Buffalo Bills game on my computer, and boom! There was this thought, “It is the first year anniversary of the cancer diagnosis this week.” Monday I went to work and had made a great lunch, and had again a thought about this first year anniversary and I was bubbling with gratitude to God for the grace he gave me and the year he had given me.
When I work, I tend to nibble on my lunch. I pack veggies, and salads, and some kind of meat to eat. I take a couple of apples too. I was munching on some carrots, when my phone went off and I inhaled a piece of carrot. That piece of carrot got lodged in my throat around my adam’s apple. It was stuck there and affected my breathing. I went on pause and went to the wash room and coughed and drank water trying to dislodge it. I tried this throughout the day. It seemed to ease toward the end of my work day.
I left and went and took the bus toward home and got home and coughed a bit. My darling Lori-Anne noticed it and inquired about it. It seemed to ease again and we went to bed. When I lay down I was wheezing really loud and I could lie down a particular way. Finally Lori-Anne and I decided to go to the Emergency at the Grand River Hospital. We were there at 9:30 pm, and we remained there until 3:35 am. The doctor finally came and they were going to take an x-ray and perhaps do a scope of my throat. Knowing my history with cancer and radiation, he was cautious about doing another x-ray. So he checked out my breathing again and said that the breathing had improved from earlier in the evening. He left it up to me to either get the x-ray which would take another hour to get the results, or we could go home, and if there was no progress in 24 to 48 hours I could come back and they would take a look at what was going on down my throat. We went home.
Lori-Anne and I prayed and went to sleep. I slept until 3 pm the next day. I had sent an email to my team lead at the office to let him know the situation. I rested that day. On that night, last Tuesday, I was going to bed, and again I felt the rattling in my throat and the wheezing and I did not want to keep Lori-Anne up so I went to go and sleep on the couch.
As I lay on the couch trying to find a comfortable posture to sleep, I began to pray and I had all these thoughts running through my head. Thoughts about chocking to death from shortness of breath. I rebuked those thoughts. I centered myself in Jesus, and I said, “Lord you know I don’t want to die yet, and I certainly do not want to die from a lack of breath. I ask you Lord to take care of Lori-Anne and my girls, and I place myself in your hands and in your care. Whether I live or die, that is up to you. I fell asleep until Lori-Anne got up at 5:30 am. I arose and got some breakfast and tea and chatted with Lori-Anne and got ready for work.
While at work, this was yesterday, I had moments where I was feeling great and others were I felt a shortness of breath. I had walked over 4000 steps to work and I did well with that, but when I took my walks on my breaks and my lunch I really felt the shortness of breath and had that ongoing irritation in my throat. I kept trying to clear my throat. I convinced myself that by the end of the evening, as Lori-Anne and I had a paint date, when we were done painting, if things had not changed, I would succumb and go back to the hospital and have them do what needed to be done to be rid of that finicky piece of carrot. I finished my work day at 5:30 pm, and I walked out and began to walk across the road where Lori-Anne had arranged to pick me up in the retirement home parking lot. I got to within the door, when I felt this movement in my throat, I opened my mouth and out came the piece of carrot as a little projectile being expelled by my body! It landed on the ground, and I felt immediate relief in my throat and breathing. Lori-Anne and I were able to thoroughly enjoy our evening of painting at the Waterloo Public Library.
All this to say, I am thankful to be alive after a year of the diagnosis of cancer and also after battling this little piece of carrot that was stuck in my throat. None of us know the hour or the circumstances of death until it happens. It is a rare thing to choose to die and how to die. Most of us have no idea when that time will come or how it will come about. Rather than getting worked up about death and dying, I am living one blessed moment at a time. I am so thankful to be alive and to be blessed with wonderful family and equally wonderful friends. I am thankful to Jesus who loves me and keeps me close and I keep him close. I am in perfect union with him. I don’t have to conjure up anything. Jesus is present and I choose to be present with him in all my circumstances. He is never taken by surprise, so I can relax, and he will take care of the burden for me. I can choose to let all those things go and just focus on living in the now and in this present moment.
On this anniversary I chose to remember that I have been blessed another year. I choose to thank God for all the many blessings I have enjoyed this past year. I choose to thank God for all the hard lessons I have learned about myself, my body, and taking better care of myself, and the importance be exercise and good eating habits and blood sugar management. I choose to celebrate life and look at the positive. I am indeed a blessed man among men.
I am indebted to God, my Lord Jesus, my dear wife Lori-Anne, my daughters, Caitlin, Erinn, sons in law, Alex and Stephen, my wonderful extended family, and my friends, and my family and friends on Facebook and Twitter, who were there for me, Skyped with me, phoned me, and talked with me, and visited me at home while I recovered, like Peter and Glenn and Dave. So many wonderful friends who have remained strong and steadfast in their love and support, like Bob and Lois, Claude and Camille, and my newfound friend Bina. So many friends. Thank you.
Peace and grace.
~ Samuel M. Buick