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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I have cancer. I’m going to die. Those are the first two lines in the journal my doctor told me to start. On a Saturday morning in September, I went for a run and later in the afternoon that same GP phoned me while I was buying my groceries and said, “You have metastatic Melanoma, Stage 4.″ What happened to Stages 1, 2 and 3, I wondered?

What is the first thing you think about after hearing that information? My husband is older, he’s supposed to die first, not me. And then, I haven’t cleaned up all those boxes in the basement yet! There’s a lot of junk down there that I don’t want the kids to have to go through. That’s probably not the first thing most people think about but it did cross my mind.

Most people will get cancer if they live long enough. I’m in my 70s, that’s not long enough. So how does one navigate this new world, this new club you didn’t ask to join? The hard part is telling your family and friends. Once you get through that and a lot of tears, cancer is a fascinating experience, well, maybe not fascinating but intriguing. I am lucky in the fact that my cancer – melanoma – is not really painful. Unfortunately, it is one of the most deadly cancers.

But where did this melanoma come from? Ten years ago I had a mole removed, a huge chunk of my back taken out, lymph nodes were removed and saw a dermatologist often for follow-up appointments. I did that but still got metastatic melanoma. Growing up I loved to lie in the sun, I wore no sunscreen in those days. Now we know better.

I decided that I would share my treatment with those who wanted to know what was happening. Being a retired teacher, it seemed like the most educational and sensible thing to do. I sent out pictures of me receiving immunotherapy. This is a fairly new treatment for melanoma and encourages my immune system to attack the cancer cells. (I wonder where those cells go once they are attacked?) There were tumours on my back like golf balls and now they are gone. Yeah!

The first month before treatment I was subject to three different kinds of scans so doctors could find out where the cancer is located. Mine is in my lungs, thyroid, right femur, brain and who knows where else. Radiation was scheduled on the knee and the brain since immunotherapy doesn’t work so well in those areas. I wondered how it was possible to radiate the base of my skull. Technicians built a mask of my face, then clamped me onto a table. Even though I cannot move, I’m asked if I can turn slightly to the left. I think I looked left but nothing more, and the radiation device rotates around my head. After five treatments I got to take my mask home. I’m trying to see how I can use it for next Halloween.

Once others know you have cancer they want to come visit, wish you well, send positive thoughts, healing energy, offer prayers and make food (before you die). There should be a guide to follow when dealing with friends with cancer. My husband would sometimes act as a “gatekeeper” in the first few weeks in case I was tired. As it turns out I loved the company and well-wishers, especially since I was feeling really good.

The food delivery was the most interesting. Some of my teacher friends offered to provide me with a meal train. Unfortunately, they didn’t quite explain what was involved. I didn’t know when the food was arriving, and I usually already had dinner made. No problem. That meal became the next day’s dinner. A big hug to the wonderful friend who brought the dinner she was already making herself and dropped it off right at dinner time.

So here I am into the third month of treatment and I am feeling no side effects (only a rash), I am walking daily, cooking meals and even vacuuming. I haven’t yet emptied any of those boxes in the basement but it is on my list. The oncologist says things are going well. The care at the Cancer Clinic has been excellent and the warm blankets are the best.

I think about MAID, Medical Assistance in Dying. This is a biggie. I felt it was something I should do before I wasn’t able to make the decision. Remember cancer is in my brain. I talked with my doctor and the form is filled out. I am dying but maybe not quite yet. There’s no deadline to use MAID. It is there if I need it.

When I checked with Dr. Google, I learned a patient with Stage 4 melanoma can live at least five years. I just renewed my passport and went for the 10-year option. You never know …

Mary Gidney lives in Victoria.

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