Ten years ago, I received some life-changing news – I was diagnosed with having stage 3 throat cancer and was given only a 40% chance of surviving. At the time, I was 59 years old – and I remember thinking that I probably wouldn’t survive because I had never in my life ever felt lucky. But I also remember hoping that I would survive until I reached sixty years of age.
After meeting with the radiation and chemical oncologists and before the start of my treatments, they sent me to the radiation department, for an orientation session with a radiation therapist. When I entered the room, a smiling therapist greeted me. Her name was Vicky.
“How are you today?” she cheerfully asked.
My mind was still numb from the news I had cancer, but I managed to mutter that I wasn’t feeling okay because I’d learned that I was given only a 40 % chance of surviving.
“Well then, you’re in the 40 % group!” she exclaimed.
Our eyes locked and she broke into another smile. It was the type of smile your mom would give you – followed by her assurances that you’d be okay. And even though this therapist was young enough to be my daughter, her words of encouragement probably saved my life.
Because if you wake up each morning, thinking that you’re in the 60 % group that doesn’t survive – what’s the sense of getting up?
So, I decided at that moment, that I was going to be in the 40% group of patients that survived! And now ten years later – I’m still here. And that’s because of the love and support that I received from the staff of the BC Cancer Agency.
I’ve written about the forty percent story previously, so please excuse the repetition but it’s critical to the rest of this story.
Today is January 8th, and it’s my birthday.
I never celebrate my birthdays, and I have never had a birthday party that I can remember. But on every birthday after my treatments ended in 2009, I have visited the cancer center where I was treated and say hello to everyone. I had volunteered there from September 2011 – January 2016, so I know most of the nurses, doctors, radiation therapists, and administrative staff. They are all like family to me, and I love every one of them. So, on this birthday, I’m also celebrating ten years of surviving cancer!
It had been a few months since I last visited the cancer center and I was excited at the prospect of being there on my birthday – ten years after being diagnosed with cancer. I seldom tell people when it’s my birthday – because it makes me uncomfortable. But today, as I entered the chemo room and saw all of the nurses, Lisa wished me a happy birthday before I could make the announcement myself.
We hugged, and I explained that I had been coming to the cancer center on my birthday ever since my treatments ended. I explained that those visits were without fanfare and I never told anyone that it was my birthday but today, it was ten years after being diagnosed – and I was still alive because of them. And I just wanted them to know how much they mean to me.
And then I became emotional and briefly cried.
Next, I walked downstairs to the radiation department and said hello to the therapists, including Laura, a therapist who I volunteered with when she was still in university. And now she was employed as a radiation therapist – I am so proud of her!
I then walked down to the very last treatment pod – number 6. It was in this room that I received my 37 days of daily radiation. When I got to the unit, I checked to see if I recognized any of the therapists. But the three therapists were strangers.
“Excuse me, I’m a former patient here, and this is the treatment pod where I received my radiation. I was wondering if I could have a quick peek inside?”
I explained that it had been ten years since being treated here and I wanted to see it one last time. I told them that Anithia and Cheryl were the therapists who treated me back in 2009.
One of the therapists agreed to take me into the room, and I asked if she would take my picture sitting on the treatment table. I laid on this table for all of those daily treatments. I wish I could describe how it felt to be sitting on that table again – without the pain or fear that I experienced a decade ago.
As we left the treatment pod, I asked if Anithia or Cheryl were working today? My therapist guide replied that Anithia was off that day, but she would go and check to see if Cheryl was back from lunch yet. I gave her one of my business cards that has my photo on it and told her that if she shows Cheryl my picturer, that she would recognize me.
A minute later, she came back with several staff members – most of whom were smiling and waving. We exchanged hugs, and I explained that I had been coming to the center every year on my birthday because it’s where I received so much love and support.
And then, to my surprise, they all started singing Happy Birthday to me – in the hallway with an audience of other staff and patients! I tried to thank them, but as I spoke, I began to cry again. But they weren’t tears of sadness – I’m not a baby – it was just that I hadn’t felt so much love in a long time. Even a couple of elderly patients sitting nearby wished me a happy birthday and said that they both had birthdays this month.
I left the building and drove to meet Sannie for lunch. She was volunteering with me while she was a student and we’ve remained close ever since. She and her boyfriend are my adopted grandkids – and I love them both very much. She and Jacob spent the Christmas holidays visiting New York City and got back on New Year’s Eve.
At lunch, I learned that Sannie was in a car accident a couple of days ago, when she and one of her friends were in Washington. She had stopped in a line of vehicles, and someone smashed into her car from behind. The car wasn’t driveable, so she had to rent a car to get back to Canada.
Her car is still in the States while the insurance companies process the claim, and I know the whole thing has been a frustration for her. So I drove her to a car rental outlet near her home, and she got a car.
After saying goodbye, I went home and spent the rest of the day exchanging hugs and kisses with Holly Golightly, my dog.
Today was my best birthday ever!
Dedicated to the staff of the Fraser Valley Cancer Centre
Today’s tune from Danny’s library (purchased)