“I’m sorry, it’s cancer. You have cancer.” This is what I expected. A patrician doctor in a lab coat in a bland but well-appointed office is talking to me while I’m in a standard chair; he’s perched on the corner of his desk. He explains some details, where it is, what kind, how big. The doctor talks about next steps, chemo, radiation, support groups. I sit there in a daze. The last word that I really heard was “cancer”. The rest is a blur, sounds that I am not processing. I don’t really feel anything. I go home, not remembering the drive. I tell my wife, we cry. I go to bed and lie awake all night – cancer – what the hell do I do now?
That’s how it is supposed to happen. It didn’t for me.
In the early evening of June 6th I woke up in a white, too bright surgical recovery ward, awoke with that strange alertness that always follows first emerging from post-anaesthetic fog. There were two neurosurgeons beside my bed, the talented and charming leaders of the surgical team that had done a complicated but relatively routine biopsy on a mass on my L5 vertebrae. A mass that had variously been described as a growth, a lesion, a cyst, a shadow, a tumor, a spot, and a mark over the previous four months by the various doctors, specialists and technicians who had puzzled over it on scans, images, ultrasounds and x-rays. Only twice had cancer been mentioned, and never as a serious option. The lead neurosurgeon, an incredibly bright, charming, and thoughtful man and I had discussed it at length. At first thinking we should just leave it as it was likely “nothing”, something that had been there for a while and was likely harmless. We finally decided to biopsy it in order to find out what it was, “just in case”. The biopsy was difficult as it was on the inside of my spine meaning a laminectomy (cutting open a few vertebrae and moving the spinal cord) to get at it and some significant healing and recovery time. While they were in there they would remove it, or as much as possible, to prevent a future surgery.
The two surgeons were grinning and clearly happy. “Very good news! The surgery was successful! Once we got in we realized right away that it was a chordoma, so we didn’t mess with it and closed you up. You will need to go to a larger centre (I live in a fairly small town with a good, but limited hospital) to have it removed, but the surgery went well.” Okay, that sounded good, but, although pretty foggy, I asked “what is chordoma?” Through smiles he responded “It is good, it is a cancer that grows on the spine but it doesn’t spread and once they get it out it won’t come back. Kim (the other surgeon), has seen one before, we are sure that is what it is. Pathology will know for sure but we are certain.” I thought they were going to high-five they seemed so happy. All I heard was “cancer”, why are they so happy? “Cancer?” I asked. “Oh yes, but the best kind. This is good.” Then I drifted off to sleep.
An hour (or so, time is vague while on anaesthesia) later I woke again and my wife and parents were by my bed, also smiling. They had talked to the surgeons, were delighted that it was a benign tumor, again this “chordoma” word. I would have to go to Vancouver to have it removed but that would be easy. This is good. I fell back into my drugged sleep for the night.
The next morning I saw my wife’s smile as I woke up in a fog. Her smile brightens everyone’s day and seeing her I became happy and more clear-headed. It was comforting and encouraging. I felt good (I was still pretty drugged up) and we talked. She had done some research overnight (16 hours before neither of us had the word chordoma or had any idea what it was) and talked to the surgeon again. Chordoma isn’t benign. It is a rare and aggressive malignant cancer of the spine and skull. It grows from fetal cells left from the notochord. Yes, when it is on the lumbar spine it can be removed and can be successfully treated, but it is a malignant tumor. I was 46 years old, I had CANCER, and I had a long road ahead of me. This is my story.