Skip to main content

Iwas sailing along on my sweet new snowboard at Lake Louise - early season, record snowfall, beautiful - and I took a fall.

After my lungs refilled with air and I blew the snow and ice out of my nose, I smiled from the pride of my very first eggbeater. Anyone new to snowboarding will understand.

It should really be called a propeller because that's what the snowboard becomes; the body is the airplane.

Story continues below advertisement

I was proud. A real fall with a name and everything. But mingled with that pride was a little bit of dread. The cold slimy kind that comes when something's not right. It felt like something had shifted in the back of my head. Not in the back of my mind ... in the back of my head. Like a pebble rolling over.

At the chalet, my husband and I swapped stories about our spectacular runs. As an afterthought, I mentioned the fall and the pebble. He's an emergency physician and the deal is this: no blood, no bones, no big deal. I got the shrug. Which is exactly what you want from an emergency doctor. If they don't shrug, then you're sick, really sick.

I went out the next day and rode in the fluffy new snow. I was tired, but at my skill level, that's not strange. With a lot of water and breaks I stayed out the whole day. The conditions were too good. This is why we had come to Alberta.

Back in flat, grey Toronto, I was shocked to find myself dizzy and stumbling. I figured I had smacked my head a little harder than I thought. I must have given myself a concussion. Nothing to do with that pebble.

A few days later, it was the holiday party season and with every sip of wine my torso swayed and my speech slurred. That was one nasty eggbeater, I bragged to fellow partygoers, always careful not to let that doctor of a husband hear. But the cold, slimy dread got hold of me and wouldn't let go.

A few days later, I could barely stand. I shied away from light and later sound. By Boxing Day, I was bedridden. The pressure in my head increased until I vomited. I would feel better for a few hours, then it would start all over again.

I kept thinking about that pebble. A bleed, I told myself. Totally fixable. I shoved some toiletries into my purse and told doctor husband to drive me to the ER. No one in my family has ever gone to the hospital voluntarily. He moved fast in case the mood passed.

Story continues below advertisement

A couple of hours and a CT scan later, two sullen doctors slunk into my room. No one shrugged. They told me I had a two-centimetre "mass" at the base of my brain. No one said brain tumour, but that's what it was. A slow-growing tumour rarely found in adults.

My pride stirred - I had the brain of a 20-year-old! The tumour had mistakenly set up camp in a 30-year-old brain and stayed quiet for nine years until my fall shoved it against the apparatus responsible for draining fluid off the brain.

I was lucky it did, as my surgeon gleefully explained - there was "clear blue sky" between my brain and the pebble. Meaning my brain tumour was outside of my brain. There would be no digging in my grey matter. We found it in time.

All I had to do was survive the surgery.

Ten hours later, the pebble was gone. Then six weeks of radiation to make sure it stayed gone.

All of that miraculous medicine saved my life but left me with vertigo and balance deficiencies. For the next year and a half, they said, there would be no brag-worthy falls. The only falls I would take would be at home. Trying to round a corner too fast or walking across a partially lit room. And that would come only after six weeks of cautiously inching along with a walker. Then a cane. And then walking clinging to my husband's arm.

Story continues below advertisement

Finally, after 10 months, I ventured out solo. For a little while and only in daylight at first. Gradually I covered longer distances, then uneven terrain, small hills and finally darkened downtown sidewalks at rush hour.

Judging by the pushing and shoving, no one could guess I had spent a year learning to walk again. My pride and I like that you can't tell, and I have things to tell you about what it's like to be physically challenged in this world. But that's a story for another day. Today, I went snowboarding.

I was terrified. And thankful that I live in Ontario, where there are hills, not mountains.

It's been 13 months since a brilliant surgeon opened up my skull. I still have vertigo and sometimes I lose track of where my body parts are. Maybe it's too soon, but I decided to strap on my snowboard anyway.

I fell. A lot. Not the impressive sort of falls that have names. Just the ordinary bum-bruisers. (Yes, it is bruised.)

And that's fine with me. Because when a snowboarding fall turns into a brain tumour, all you want is another chance at a snowboarding fall.

Janette Shipston Chan lives in Toronto.

Report an error
We have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We expect to have our new commenting system, powered by Talk from the Coral Project, running on our site by the end of April, 2018. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to