Exactly one year ago today, I was sitting in the back of a van on the way home from a Canada Day party in Stoney Creek. My phone rang a couple of times, but it was an unknown number, so I didn’t pick up. I figured it was a telemarketer, and left it at that. Minutes later, my dad called — a nurse from PMH had called him to tell him that she wanted me to call her back. She left a number with my dad. I wrote it down, hung up, and tried not to cry. I called the number and got through to the nurse who told me that my oncologist wanted to move up my follow-up appointment by three weeks — I was going out of town and she wanted to see me before I left. I asked the nurse if everything was OK, and as expected, she had no answer for me. I hung up the phone and started to cry.
My friend Jodi was in the van with me and asked what was wrong. My oncologist wants to move up my appointment, I said. That’s not good news. Jodi suggested that maybe she just wanted to see me to re-run some tests or something. I told her it didn’t work that way. That they would only move up an appointment like that if they saw something they didn’t like. My roommate Adam was with us in the vehicle. His mom passed away from cancer and he was familiar with these kind of phone calls. It’s not good, he agreed.
A few days later, I was sitting in Dr. M’s office with Jodi and Dr. M was telling me that my CT scan results showed signs of recurrent disease. Seven years after my initial diagnosis, I was going to have to go through the whole thing all over again. We left the office with another appointment to come back and meet with a surgeon in three weeks, and we went for brunch. Then we went back to my house and I called a bunch of my closest friends, told them to grab some alcohol and come over. Everyone did. No one had a reason to not come over, despite it being the middle of the day on a Monday. No one questioned that I wanted to get drunk in the afternoon. So they came, and I told them, and we drank. It was one of the hottest days of the year. Later, we went to the pool at Alexandra Park. It was open until midnight because of the heat wave. We jumped in and out, floated on our backs, turned somersaults. Later, back at Jodi’s, everyone drank beers on the back patio while I slept on the couch in the living room.
Two days ago, I finished chemo for the second time. At Princess Margaret, when you finish chemo, there’s a bell that you ring to mark the end. I’d heard it several times during my own treatments, but never saw it until Thursday. I happened to be given the room outside of which was the bell, named the “Bell of Bravery”. I started laughing when I saw that. I still think ‘bravery’ is a silly concept to attribute to cancer patients.
I invited a bunch of friends to join me for the bell-ringing ceremony. My room filled up quickly and people spilled out into the hallway and the waiting room. Mia brought cupcakes, Joel brought prosecco. We wondered if it was wrong to drink in a hospital, but figured the worst they could do was kick us out and not let us come back. Frankly, that sounded pretty desirable. Catherine brought me a trophy to which she affixed an office label that said “Bravery #1” but which looked more like “Beaver #1” or “Slavery #1” depending on who was looking at it. Everyone hung out for the hour and a half until chemo was finished and I could ring that goddamned bell (everyone except Catherine, who had to go back to work). We were loud and had to be asked to keep it down. We were probably the happiest chemo room in the entire ward.
I’m glad my friend Cindy told me to invite people and make a big deal out of the bell ringing. Make sure you do it, she said, and take pictures. I don’t know if we remembered to take pictures, but there is some video that I’ll post if I remember to get around to it. I almost didn’t invite people, and then when I did, I almost told them not to come. The first time I finished chemo, it was just…over. Nothing to mark it. I’m glad I didn’t change my mind and tell everyone to stay home. I don’t think I would have felt so much like this was complete if I had.
So thanks to everyone who came out on Thursday — Lindsay, Jessie, Beck, Jenna (who came all the way from Ottawa!), Peter, Mia, Catherine, Joel, Dara, Scott, and Jodi. Thanks for the applause and the cheering and the company and the treats. You are all the best.