Want to know what life is like for Keith Taylor since being diagnosed with cancer? You’ll have to catch him first, and then keep up.
“I try to do a run, swim or a bike ride most mornings, before lots of other people are out there,” says Taylor, a former police officer who is now partner in an international consulting firm. He usually hits the trail along the Capilano River near his home in West Vancouver.
“I just find the morning exercise routine helps me focus,” he adds.
Still working hard – and training hard – in his early 70s, Taylor is preparing for a short-course triathlon. And he’s doing it all while living with multiple myeloma, a cancer that affects plasma cells found in bone marrow.
It was during a training session that Taylor first realized something was very wrong. One day in 2013, he felt a deep, sharp pain in his midsection, so intense that it knocked him flat.
“It was so excruciating that I thought I had gone into cardiac arrest,” Taylor says. “I went to my GP, and it turned out to be multiple myeloma. The pain was because one of my vertebra had fissured.”
When myeloma cells become cancerous, it can lead to anemia, kidney failure and immune system challenges. Or as in Taylor’s case, the cancerous cells can crack a vertebra and cause indescribable pain.
According to The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada (LLSC), nearly 7500 Canadians are living with or are in remission from multiple myeloma, with more men than women diagnosed each year. Its cause is unknown and it is not curable, but it is treatable. In Taylor’s case, treatment has included stem cell and chemotherapy, but the treatments have not been easy, he says.
“I have to credit the staff at Vancouver General Hospital for getting me through with their professionalism and compassion. And of course, my two daughters, who live on Vancouver Island.”
Dr. Mary Jane Esplen
“A diagnosis of cancer is life-altering information, and most individuals experience it in such a way that it has existential impacts.
Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto
Taylor was in remission for five years. But then his blood tests began to reveal abnormalities again. So now, he continues with both cancer treatment and triathlon training.
Though the return of his cancer wasn’t good news, Taylor says he has actually experienced some emotional and psychological benefits in the seven years since being diagnosed.
“When one is exposed to a disease such as myeloma, you’re rendered vulnerable,” he says. “To be exposed to that vulnerability compels you to understand yourself, and then you have to understand how you’re going to deal with the shock and the insecurity that comes with having an incurable disease.”
Having cancer has made him more compassionate, he says. “When I see people who are aggressive, I think now that they might be dealing with their own personal issues. We all have our private battles.”
Living with blood cancer can be a roller coaster of emotions as patients deal with diagnosis and cope with treatment. Patients can experience the high of finding out they are in remission, then the low when the cancer returns. These transitions can be emotionally overwhelming, says Dr. Mary Jane Esplen, psycho-oncologist and professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine.
“A diagnosis of cancer is life-altering, and most individuals experience it in such a way that it has existential impacts,” Dr. Esplen says. “Even with a good prognosis, it can bring forth a kind of jarring impact around the finiteness and fragility of life.”
Between 25 and 75 per cent of diagnosed patients may experience depressive symptoms, Dr. Esplen says. Many respond well to exercise and support from family, friends and empathetic professionals. “I’m a big fan of professionally-led support groups,” she says.
Nadine Prevost, director, community services at the LLSC, says their research has revealed that following treatment, people often struggle between two worlds – trying to move forward while dealing with the physical, cognitive and emotional impact of the blood cancer experience. They have to step back into their social functions (being a mom, a partner, a colleague), while feeling they are a different person.
“Following treatment, people often feel pressured to put on a happy face and get on with life,” says Prevost. “Their family and friends have the unrealistic expectation that they will get back home and back to normal.”
With the generous help of a volunteer committee made up of Canadians affected by blood cancer, the LLSC has developed a program called Your Life After Cancer. This program addresses the unique needs of people who have recovered or who are in remission from blood cancer, offering information, tools and resources to help Canadians thrive in this new chapter.
“Your Life after Cancer celebrates and supports Canadians no matter where they are in their blood cancer experience,” Prevost says.
As for Taylor, he says that he is grateful that in the years since his myeloma diagnosis, he’s come to understand himself in a way he never did before.
When he runs or cycles, Taylor finds that listening to good music – from Brahms to Balthazar – relaxes him and helps him find the right perspective on his life.
“It may sound trite, but it’s important to appreciate things – friends, family like my daughters,” he says. “I think it has changed me undoubtedly for the better.”
For information and support, visit YourLifeAfterCancer.ca. The Blood Cancer Experience podcast is also available on all major streaming platforms.
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