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first person

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Illustration by Kumé Pather

I thought it was just another deer fly bite, collateral damage from a mid-June afternoon spent tending the cottage garden. Like the two or three on my arm, this one, below my left ear, swelled and turned mildly painful. Unlike them, it didn’t go away in a day or two. It got bigger, harder and more painful. So much so that I drove back to the city to see my GP, who booked an ultrasound, which, a few days later, indicated a cyst had taken root under my salivary gland. Likely nothing too serious, my doctor said, referring me to an ear, nose and throat specialist with the proviso that it could take weeks to be seen. And that if it got worse I should head to the ER.

It did. Chewing food became agony. After a sleepless night – just putting my head on the pillow turned into torture – I was in the ER. Eight hours and one CT-scan later, the attending physician said I likely had parotitis – a condition akin to mumps – and prescribed antibiotics. One thing worried him, though: My left eyelid was flickering, not closing as it should.

A week later, in even worse pain and with the left eye refusing to shut, I was back at the ER. It was just as crowded, but no waiting this time: I was tended to almost immediately by two doctors, CT-scanned again and had my eyelid taped shut. People were exceedingly kind, which should have twigged me that something was seriously wrong. I left with a referral to the hospital’s senior ENT specialist. That was on a Saturday night. His office called Monday morning – apparently, there was some urgency – and shortly after I was in his clinic where, having reviewed my test results and examined my misshapen jaw, he made his call: Cancer. He was 90 per cent sure, though he said he’d be delighted to be proven wrong. The left eyelid’s refusal to shut indicated the tumour – the first time that dreaded word had been used – was spreading and seizing the optic nerve.

I wish I could tell you I was stoic and took this in stride but that would be a lie. I cried, which is rather unbecoming in a six-foot-four, 200-pound man. I was not prepared to hear the word cancer, which immediately shifted my life soundtrack from major to minor key.

On some level, I was offended. I’m a former marathon runner, damn it. I don’t smoke. Drink moderately. Use sunscreen. We eat a Mediterranean diet and exercise regularly. I do hours of gardening at a time. I was a fool. All that is irrelevant. Cancer doesn’t care. It is an equal opportunity destroyer.

I went home; told my wife. Cried a bit more. Told a few family members and close friends. (Why not? The unblinking eyeball was a giveaway.) Cried a bit more. I reached out to a dear friend a couple of provinces away who had survived non-Hodgkin lymphoma who advised me not to be afraid to ask for help. I didn’t need to: Neighbours, family and friends stepped up, providing rides to and from medical appointments, dinners, books, offers to dog-sit.

My mood would swing from highly intense (every conversation seemed important, every book filled with life-or-death messages) to existential apathy. Why plant more perennials if I might not be able to see them bloom next year? Why search for order in a chaotic world? To escape, I would listen to head-banger rock played loudly on headphones, blocking out any possibility of pondering life’s mysteries while I suckered the tomato plants.

I also developed a deep desire to travel back in time. I dearly wanted to go back and ask for forgiveness from people I’d treated badly. Withdraw ultimatums issued in arrogance. Stifle some of the absolutely stupid things I’ve said. Erase rudeness; insert kindness. When you get a “90 per cent chance it’s cancer” diagnosis you can resolve to be a better person but you can’t go back and fix the damage you’ve already done. You can apologize, but that won’t necessarily make it right.

The operation went well. The surgeon removed a mandarin-orange-sized growth from my jaw and untangled its tentacles without having to sever the optic nerve. The post-surgery period, into mid-September, meant stepping into life’s waiting room: No committing to anything, no making plans. My wife and I were mentally preparing for the round of radiation likely to follow. Possibly chemo.

As it turned out, my doctor was proven wrong. I was in the fortunate 10 per cent. The growth he removed was not cancerous. What was a tumour returned to being a cyst. No need for radiation, chemo or, for that matter, any further treatment.

Not all is perfect, of course. The carefully preserved optic nerve refuses to re-engage, leaving my left eyelid permanently up. I tear up frequently, crying when I laugh or when I step out into cold air. The eye has to be taped shut every night and is susceptible to being scratched. The left side of my jaw is permanently frozen, as though it’s been shot through with Novocain. I have a ropey scar running around the back of my ear and along my jaw, but my beard covers it. I need a procedure to drop the eyelid down a bit for some protection. Nietzsche is wrong: That which doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. At least not physically. But these are minor things to be incorporated into my new normal. My heart goes out to people who really do have cancer, who have to go through grueling treatments in hopes of defeating this despicable disease and getting their life back.

What I won’t forget, though, from this dodging of the cancer bullet, is that while life is short, you need to find time to be kind. Kind to people who are kind to you. Kind to those who aren’t. To think twice (or thrice) before saying rude, stupid, arrogant things you will later thrash around in bed at 3 a.m. because you can’t go back in time to make them right.

Joe Sornberger lives in Ottawa.

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