Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Little Background on Finding the Cancer

In late August some back pain flared up. This was nothing new to me - a couple of times each year I pull or tweak something, but a massage and a few days of light activity always does the trick. I happened to be vacationing with friends and family at a rented cottage, and the biking was great so I rode through the soreness. At the same time I started having some pretty sharp pains in my stomach. I can't really recall when during the day or how often they occurred, but it certainly didn't seem like a big deal.

Looking back, I suppose the first sign was the way I was riding. Over the course of a week I rode 110, then 85, then 65 kms, and I had some pretty terrible bonks on each ride - this was after a summer where I had shown more jump, power and top speed than ever before. It kind of pissed me off that I seemed to be losing my form just as Cyclocross season was about to begin.

Christi and I decided to do a small cleanse once we returned to the city to shake off all the food and beer we'd enjoyed at the cottage. I thought that maybe my stomach was alerting me to some new allergy, (I have none) so chopping out wheat, sugar, and booze for a week seemed like a good approach. And I can honestly say that during that week my stomach hardly bugged me at all. My back, on the other hand, was still quite sore. Since this was not normal for me I redirected the massages I usually have done on my legs to my back - with no luck.

So in mid-September with my stomach flaring up and my back still barking at me I went to see my doctor. The most likely cause was a bacteria called Helicobacter Pylori. So I filled a prescription and started popping pills. But I was immediately distracted by the arrival of my new cross bike. The night I picked it up I had a great Thursday ride with my SSOL (Sound Solutions) teammates. That next Tuesday Owen and I hit the first Cross at Centennial session - where I won the end of night race (which is very informal and not always hotly contested) for the first time ever. I was brimming with excitement and suddenly felt like I was flying.

But the very next day I woke up feeling flu-ish and limped into the first race, where I completely sucked.

Does this look like a guy who's doing something he loves?

Christi and the kids had come with me and we retired to the St. Catharines Best Western for some swimming, mini golf and dinner at The Keg with some friends. I was determined to race better the next day, and I did. But as 'okay' as I was feeling on the bike I was feeling worse and worse off the bike. I was feeling run down: I couldn't seem to get through a full week of work, I was going to bed early, and worst of all, I wasn't enjoying the taste of Steam Whistle!

Since the pills weren't doing anything tangible for my stomach I went back to my doctor; he quickly booked me in for a gastroscopy and an ultrasound. The gastroscopy was my big hope. I'm not sure what I expected them to find, but I was pretty confident that some ulcer-type thing was to blame. (Although I admit I was not comfortable with the idea of succumbing to stress, since I naively consider myself above that sort of thing.) The procedure itself was no big deal, but outside some spots of irritation there were no major findings.

The next day was my ultrasound, but I unwittingly blew the timing on this one. Now I know that a gastroscopy that fills one's stomach with air does not enhance the accuracy of an ultrasound the very next day. The woman scanning me said she couldn't get a good look at my pancreas because of it - although in retrospect I think the mass was probably visible but not visible enough to confirm. Either way I had to book another appointment.

While all this testing and re-testing was going on I squeezed in two more races. I came DFL (dead f*cking last) in both. It may seem silly to keep going on about this, but how I feel on the bike informs how I feel in a very major way. I am certain that if I was still beating the guys I was beating last year I may not have pursued my problems with the same amount of gusto; underperformance is a great motivator!

Here's where I can start getting specific. I went in for my follow-up ultrasound on Tuesday, October 18th. This was the first time I got the feeling something was wrong. The fellow scanning me took an awfully long time going over the same area. He left the room a few times and asked my who my doctor was. I'm sure that information was on my form, but I immediately thought: "This guy wants to call my doctor right now."

That afternoon I was in an edit suite when my phone rang. My doctor's assistant asked if I had a few minutes. Every call I'd ever had was just confirming that my blood work or ECG was clean, so this was bad sign number two. Knowing something bad was coming I felt remarkably calm and disconnected as the assistant told me with such sweet kindness: "You have a mass that's about four and a half centimetres in your pancreas. The doctor wants you to have a CT scan. I'm calling you right back with your appointment."

On Wednesday the 19th Christi and I met with my doctor. I always knew he was a veteran, but I am still impressed with his bedside manner. What he told us was as factual as possible with no sugar coating, but the room was filled with his confidence and sureness as he made it clear that despite the fact I was a healthy, young, non-smoker, there was a chance I had pancreatic cancer. The only difference between me and Steve Jobs was a slightly fuller resume and a few billion bucks. Christi was a rock in the meeting. She knew what all the medical words meant and asked many questions that were out of the realm of my swimming brain.

The next morning I was in the hospital getting my CT scan. Again, this was not an unpleasant experience. The technicians were positive and friendly, and the scan itself was kind on cool. It was done in minutes.

Which meant it didn't take long to get the call on Thursday, October 20th that I did indeed have cancer.

So, to the best of my recollection, those are the facts and markers. There have been a lot of tears and even more emails since then. I'll share my thoughts and feelings - so many of them wonderful and uplifting - in the following posts.

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