For most of my life, cancer was this dark cloud that only rained on other people. No one I knew ever got hit with it. I did not have any family history creeping up on me. I was safe, strong and healthy.
I was so naïve. I just assumed people got cancer from bad habits like smoking, and if I lived a relatively healthy life then I had nothing to worry about. Sadly, cancer can strike anyone.
As Feb. 4, 2016 is World Cancer Day, I share my story.
By the time I hit 30, I started having breathing problems when exercising. I figured I was getting older, fatter, slower... I thought it would get better if I ran more and ate better, you know, maybe lost a few pounds. It did not.
The coughing and hacking got worse. I could barely bend over to tie my own shoes without losing my breath. At the same time, my wife insisted that there was a lump in my neck. As far as I could remember, my neck had always been like that and I never had any health issues because of it. I am a big guy, my neck had always been big, and so I thought nothing of it.
My doctor suspected there may be something wrong and referred me to an endocrinologist, who immediately diagnosed a goiter -- a growth on the thyroid gland that can be benign or cancerous. I had to have a surgery to remove the thyroid gland, and my goiter turned out to be a 10cm cancerous tumour. Unfortunately, I had thyroid cancer. Fortunately, it was follicular thyroid cancer, a very treatable variety.
I had one radio-iodine treatment to kill any residual cancer cells, and my follow up scans came back negative. Thyroid cancer can be a walk in the park compared to most others, and I was lucky that the kind I had was so easy to treat.
Afterwards, I realized that the tumour was compressing my windpipe, which is why I was having breathing problems for so long. It was incredibly rare that a man in his thirties would get thyroid cancer, but a 30-year-old can also handle treatment more easily.
That brief scare was what I thought would be the end of cancer impacting my world.
I was about to be humbled again.
A month after my last cancer treatment, my wife noticed that my daughter Alina had lost a little bit of weight, which is unusual for a toddler not yet two years old. Alina's eyes had also been doing strange movements occasionally, but her sight seemed fine to us and to an optometrist she saw.
Alina had all of her vaccinations and saw a doctor regularly. We didn't know what the issue could be. We went to B.C. Children's Hospital and within a day they informed us that Alina had a brain tumour.
To me, a brain tumour was akin to a death sentence. I thought my daughter, the most innocent and beautiful creature on the planet, was going to die. She had done nothing to deserve this. A completely random, non-hereditary meteorite fell from the sky and hit MY daughter.
Alina's had very subtle symptoms, but doctors told us she was actually weeks away from death due to the pressure building in her brain. Her spinal fluid was not flowing properly in her brain, which put pressure on her pituitary gland, stopping it from functioning properly. This is why she had stopped growing and lost weight.
Alina had emergency brain surgery the next day to attempt to remove the tumour, or at least get a biopsy and help correct the spinal fluid flow in her brain. I assumed the worst would happen as I held her and laid her down on the operating table for the anesthesiologist.
I did not know then that I would be the last thing she would see.
The risks with brain surgery are as numerous and as dangerous as you can imagine -- infection, paralysis, brain damage, death -- even with the best surgeons and facilities. After six hours of surgery, Alina was out, alive. The surgical team was able to remove about half of the tumour and fix her spinal fluid flow.
However, her pupils were not able to focus after surgery. The tumour was coming out of her optic nerve and slowly robbing her of sight. The surgery was the last straw, and it blinded her. Alina is a very clever girl and she has adapted well to being blind. Everyday we have with her is a blessing.
Alina then endured 54 sessions of chemotherapy that ended in December 2015. Her tumour shrank and we hope we never have to do any more treatments again! She has an excellent prognosis and gets to live medication-free, a rarity for a brain tumour survivor.
We are very lucky to have a world class facility like B.C. Children's Hospital so close to home. They saved my daughter's life. We are one of the lucky families. We got to bring our girl home. Recently, our family welcomed a new addition -- a healthy baby sister for Alina.
To give back, I have signed up for The Ride to Conquer Cancer presented by Silver Wheaton benefiting the B.C. Cancer Foundation. It's a two-day, 200-kilometre cycling journey that takes place on Aug. 27 and 28, 2016. Since 2009, The Ride has raised over $70 million for the B.C. Cancer Foundation.
Funds raised through The Ride to Conquer Cancer enable the B.C. Cancer Foundation to support breakthrough research and enhancements to care at the B.C. Cancer Agency.
I can't wait to participate in The Ride. I will see my healthy family cheering as I cross the finish line. An experience not everyone is so lucky to have.
A two-day bike ride is the least we can do in this fight. Register today for $25 at conquercancer.ca using promo code WCD25. Let's unite this World Cancer Day. See you at The Ride!
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