About five years ago, Grand River Regional Cancer Centre in Kitchener created a meaningful ritual for patients when their treatment was completed. After concluding a final session of chemotherapy or radiation, and before leaving the building, a cancer patient can ring a large gong prominently displayed in the lobby. This little tradition celebrates a significant milestone in their journey. The sound of a gong also sends a message of hope to others waiting or already in treatment rooms as they continue on their own medical path. While I faithfully undertook my weekly going to GRRCC, I never got to hit the gong. More about that later.
I began my relationship with the Cancer Centre on April 15 of this year as I arrived for a pre-treatment orientation. Due to COVID, no one but patients were allowed to enter through the main door. My admission ticket was a diagnosis of prostate cancer. As I approached the entrance and walked under the CANCER CENTRE sign, the reality of actually being a cancer patient was striking. If I were a younger person, still carrying responsibilities of family and vocation, it would have been much more striking.
This preliminary consultation included the mandatory COVID test, an explanation of radiation therapy from a helpful and reassuring technician, a CT scan and a brief meeting and examination with my radiation oncologist. A highlight for me was the three tattoos I acquired. Unfortunately, I had no choice in their design or placement on my anatomy. In fact, if I want to display them on our beach this summer, I would have to wear my skimpiest Speedo. Even then, no one would notice those tiny pelvic dots carefully placed to guide the radiation beams.
My weekly treatments began eight days later. As a small-town older fellow, I can get easily overwhelmed in big city hospitals: staff hurrying by in all directions, out-patients obediently sitting six feet apart as they awaited a call for some procedure, arrows and signs providing destination directions up and down hallways and around corners, intercom barking out coded signals.
I was directed toward my initial stop, a sign in. A busy young woman behind her computer politely asked for my health card. I fumbled to find it among the contents of my cluttered wallet as a growing line of other newcomers stood behind me, each keeping an appropriate social distance on their painted spot. When I finally retrieved my card, I noticed right in front of me, a big sign asking patients to have their health card ready before approaching the counter. I still received my ID bracelet—and a warm smile which told me she understood and was not perturbed by my rookie mistake. I was also gently advised that I was wearing my disposable mask the wrong side out.
My next challenge was those ubiquitous hospital paper booties. As I awaited treatment, my radiation therapist handed me a pair of flimsy blue, paper footwear. For some reason they didn’t fit. How could this be? I must not be the only man with size 12 feet. I frantically pulled until I got each one over a big toe and then half way on my heel. As I was summoned into the radiation room, I rose up and shuffled awkwardly toward the sound of a voice. Coming to to greet me, the therapist instead quickly returned me to my chair. Apparently, I was in danger of tripping over my own two feet.
In an unforgettable act of kindness, my new friend quickly squatted down and tied them properly—explaining something about finding the draw strings. Again, no judgement nor impatience. For an instant, I was reminded of the story of Jesus humbly washing the feet of his disciples. (I even took the used pair home to practice before my next session.)
Her spontaneous act was typical of every interaction I subsequently had with staff and volunteers. Each was patient-centred, well-informed, obviously caring, and despite being extremely busy, always taking time to be fully present to me. The other feature of patient care was how the system ran like clockwork. I would arrive just before my 1:15 appointment and had merely a moment to sit down before being called in. The radiotherapy was painless and took only 15 minutes, with most of that time focused on getting me positioned properly.
Apart from my humorous encounters, I found out that radiation remains a serious business. I had assumed the powerful beams of x-ray were cleverly able to bypass my healthy prostate cells while zapping the bad guys lurking beside them. I was informed that radiation hits both healthy and diseased cells. The expectation is that the healthy ones eventually heal while their cancerous counterparts cannot regenerate. Over the following months and before complete healing happens, most patients can expect side effects—mostly minor, occasionally major, in the prostate, bladder or bowel. In warfare, this is known as collateral damage.
My case was different. Side effects did not wait their turn but occurred unexpectedly after my third treatment. Apparently, radiation was causing a previous dormant bowel condition to flare up. After number four session, two oncologists strongly advised me to stop treatment to avoid possibly serious and permanent damage to what I will obliquely refer to as my “sewage system.” (I must stress that my nemesis was not radiation, but the pre-existing condition. I would not want any man to be deterred from seeking treatment because of my uncommon difficulties.)
While I won’t miss the long two-hour drive nor the physiological challenge of arriving for treatment, as required, with “an empty bowel but full bladder,” I will miss spending those four hours each Friday, enjoying good conversations with my compassionate drivers, both family and friends, who gave freely of their time to get me to Kitchener and back home to Southampton again. Three more volunteers were standing by. Thank you all!
And that is why I never got to ring the gong. But I still have my hormone injections every three months. And life still goes ahead, lived one day at a time as we all should do, perhaps guided by the prudent philosophy of a 17th-century English clergyman:
… for this day only is ours, we are dead to yesterday,
and are not yet born to the morrow. (Jeremy Taylor, 1613-1667)