The summer I’ll never forget began much like all the summers I can’t remember. I was up at the family cottage in Muskoka. My wife, daughter and I were enjoying a beautiful sunny morning playing in the lake. The phone started to ring and I ran up the hill and into the cottage to answer it. It was the dermatologist I had seen a few weeks earlier calling. Had I gotten any of the messages she had left for me in the city, she asked. No, I said, I’ve been out of town. Well, she said, the pathology has come back on the mole that was removed from your back. It contained Melanoma. Skin cancer. She told me it can be quite serious, fatal in fact, if left untreated. I would need to have a bigger area of skin removed because the cancer went right out to the fringe of the area she had removed. I would also need to have my lymph nodes tested to see if the cancer had spread. Her office will make the appointments at Sunnybrook hospital and get back to me with the dates. Did I have any questions? I asked her a few questions which she answered as best she could. We’ll have to just take things one step at a time she said. She left me her number and said I could call back if I had more questions later.
As I listened to her, I understood what she was saying, but it didn’t quite seem real. Me, cancer? That can’t be right. Didn’t she know that I was perfectly happy living a charmed and decidedly cancer free life? Sure people get cancer. But they are old or sick or have an unhealthy lifestyle. Most importantly, they are people other than me! Last time I checked, I was supposed to be invincible. Probably like most middle aged guys, I still felt like I was 25 on the inside. Maybe I’d lost a step (or two) on the ultimate field, but I could still hold my own with guys half my age. I don’t get cancer. Maybe if I don’t say the word out loud, it won’t be true. For weeks, I hardly told a soul what was going on. But still, I knew the truth, and it scared the shit out of me.
For the first time in my life, I had to face the reality that I was going to die. Not only that, I might die sooner than later. What if I don’t get to see my daughter grow up? What if I don’t grow old with my wife? What if I die and she marries some new guy? These thoughts kept me up at night and during the day, they were never far from the top of my mind. On some level we all know that we are going to die, but I never really thought much about it, and that was the way I liked it.
The summer dragged on and I wished that I could press fast forward and just put the entire experience behind me. For the first time, I didn’t have much of an appetite for food or for life. Wasn’t I supposed to go skydiving or mountain climbing? I felt more like climbing under the bed. When I told my family doctor what was going on, her first question was, ‘Do you have life insurance?’. (For all you future doctors out there, this is not the best first question to ask.) Unfortunately, the answer was no, I didn’t.
I tried to keep busy. I wrote a will. I was extra-helpful around the house. I figured that if I don’t survive, I can at least set the bar a bit higher for the next guy. I thought about the things I haven’t done. I’d wanted to buy a house and fix it up, get a dog, move to a smaller town, re-upholster my dad’s favourite chair. I’d always thought there would be lots of time.
I think most of us have a picture of our ideal life in our heads and the life that we are living may or may not resemble it. I have a great life. I love my friends and family, enjoy my work and stay active. But still, I promised myself that if I was OK, I would make more of an effort to close the gap between my real life and my ideal life.
Finally, in mid-August, the date of my surgery arrived and for a few hours afterwards I felt great. I had survived going under general aesthetic for the first time and things had gone well. But then, the waiting continued. On the Friday before the Labour Day weekend, I went back to see the surgeon to get my results. He walked in the room and said everything was good. The margins on my back were clear and my lymph nodes were clear. He looked at my stitches and left the room. Just like that, it was over. I felt amazing but also somewhat stunned. That’s it? Not a word about what I’ve been through? Not even a friendly ‘stay out of the sun’? I had questions. Lots of questions. But I also had one weekend of summer left and I was going to enjoy it! And maybe start shopping for a golden retriever…….