I’ve been a patient at Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre for over two years now, but it’s occurred to me that I haven’t presented a detailed description of southern Alberta’s primary cancer treatment and research facility in my blog. Perhaps I was waiting for the perfect time to focus on this topic in The Teal Diaries, and since my next scheduled appointment at the centre’s outpatient clinic is in approximately one week, writing down some of my thoughts and feeling about the building and its dedicated staff seems highly appropriate. Prior to my cancer diagnosis I had virtually no knowledge of the Tom Baker Centre. Like most people in Calgary I was aware of its location and had observed it numerous times at the sprawling Foothills Medical Centre, however I had never actually been inside the building. Every time I saw the five-storey cement structure, I hoped I would never be required to enter it. The very name “Baker Centre” would set off a wave of powerful thoughts and emotions—in my mind I identified it as a place where cancer patients went to receive treatment, and sometimes to die.
My first time inside was on a cold, dark November morning. Since it was my initial assessment the team of oncologists had scheduled me early, before anyone else. I still remember how terrified I was and how unexpectedly quiet and peaceful everything seemed to me at that hour. My mother and I were essentially the only ones present in the waiting room of the gynecology clinic. Soon I was having a detailed conversation with a nurse about my medical history, naturally there was an emphasis on any family history of cancer. Next, I was examined by one of the Baker Centre’s top pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage. Following my examination, my mother and I were assembled in one of the Baker Centre’s conference rooms with Dr. Ghatage and a team of other physicians.
The seriousness of my situation began to register as I looked across the table at four of five white-coated medical professionals. Dr. Ghatage explained that he wanted to perform surgery as soon as possible. This news was overwhelming, especially since I had just undergone a total abdominal hysterectomy three weeks earlier that had resulted in a cancer diagnosis. “I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurted out. “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a firm voice immediately responded. These rational words jolted me back to reality, and before we left I signed a consent form for a laparotomy—a specialized procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.
All gynecologic cancer surgery and subsequent recovery actually takes place on Unit 42 B in the Foothills Hospital, but I was back at the adjacent Tom Baker Centre approximately two months later. This time it was to have the necessary follow-up chemotherapy. It was at this point that I began to realize how self-contained, busy and efficient the renowned Tom Baker Cancer Centre is. First my mom and I attended one of the centre’s chemotherapy orientation sessions. It included a tour of the daycare unit where specialized nurses administer powerful anticancer drugs to a steady stream of patients. About 90 patients a day receive treatment in 39 daycare treatment spaces, some of the spaces feature beds and some have reclining style chairs. Naturally, I was apprehensive when the day arrived for my first cycle of carboplatin with taxol; I was scheduled for six cycles with each treatment 21 days apart. Of course, I’d been warned about the inevitable side effects including fatigue, weakness and nausea. It was also predicted that my hair might become thinner, but that I probably wouldn’t lose my shoulder length bob completely. As a precaution, I had it cut into a much shorter pixie style.
I can laugh now, but I was rather worried that some of the veteran chemotherapy patients might be able to tell that I was a newbie. They would ascertain that I looked too healthy and had all of my hair! When I arrived for my first session, I noticed that the people around me seemed to have many types and stages of cancer—what is more, a good number of them exhibited full heads of hair. After a short wait, a nurse led my mother and I into the Baker Centre’s large daycare treatment area. My heart beat faster as we reached my assigned space and I settled into a recliner by the window. The nurse explained what she was doing as she inserted my IV line and then attached some anti-nausea medication in preparation for the potent cancer-fighting drugs.
Somehow the hustle and bustle of the busy daycare area had a calming effect on me, as did being in the presence of the staff and so many other patients. I left my first chemotherapy appointment extremely impressed by all that the Baker Centre does to make the procedure less stressful and more comfortable for each patient. I’ll never forget being offered coffee, tea and cookies by one of their devoted volunteers. Having been through treatment, I can appreciate how incredibly challenging it is for the team to meet the individual needs of thousands of men and women diagnosed with cancer. I was later astonished to learn that there were 20,100 chemotherapy appointments at Calgary’s Tom Baker Centre in the 2010-11 fiscal year. In my next blog post I’ll discuss some of the issues as the centre struggles to keep up with an ever-increasing demand for its services.