Cancer and This Uncertain Life

“In a way though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. The path forward would seem obvious if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I’d spend time with family. Tell me one year, I’d have a plan (write the book). Give me 10 years, I’d get back to treating diseases. The pedestrian truth that you live one day at a time didn’t help. What was I supposed to do with that day?”

— Dr. Paul Kalanithi on living with stage IV lung cancer


Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I had no true sense of how precarious our existence is or of how uncertain my future had probably always been. Then, on November 3, 2011, I learned that the course of my entire life could change in just a single day. I’m at home recovering from hysterectomy surgery and awaiting the final results of my pathology report. At about 10:15 or 10:30 that morning the telephone rings and a quick glance at the call display confirms that it’s my gynecologist’s office. I’m still in my pajamas and resting in my favorite living room chair. What happened next is something that I will always associate with how completely fragile life is.

At first as I hold the receiver to my ear I try to remain composed, but in just a few seconds my heart is racing and I can hardly breathe. I’m consumed by a sense of dread so powerful that suddenly I’m watching myself in slow motion. I listen as in a calm voice a nurse informs me that my gynecologist would like to see me immediately, if possible he wants me to come to his office at five in the evening.. Prohibited from divulging any confidential information from my report, she ends our discussion by requesting that I bring a friend or family member with me. In just a matter of minutes my life has been thrown into turmoil and my cancer journey has begun.

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My first time inside Calgary’s Tom Baker Cancer Centre is on a cold, dark November morning. Since it’s my initial assessment, the team of oncologists has obviously chosen to schedule me early, before anyone else. As I enter I’m terrified, but I soon notice how quiet and peaceful everywhere in the building seems to me at such an early hour. For what feels like a long time, my mother and I are essentially the only ones sitting in the waiting room of the centre’s outpatient clinic. First, I’m required to have a detailed consultation. I speak with a nurse about my medical history, naturally there is an emphasis on any family history of cancer. We confirm that there is a slight history of breast cancer and colon cancer on my mom’s side, but no actual cases of uterine or ovarian cancer.

Next, I’m examined by one of the Baker Centre’s top pelvic cancer surgeons, Dr. Prafull Ghatage. Following the examination, we are assembled in one of the conference rooms with Dr. Ghatage and a team of other physicians. The seriousness of my situation begins to register as I look across the table at four of five white-coated medical professionals. Meanwhile, Dr. Ghatage explains that he wants to perform surgery as soon as possible. This news is suddenly too overwhelming, especially in a situation in which I’m still recovering from a total abdominal hysterectomy.

“I just had a hysterectomy and now I’m dying of cancer,” I tearfully blurt out.  “You’re not dying, I’ll inform you if you are dying,” a firm voice immediately responds. These rational words jolt me back to reality, and before I leave I sign a consent form for a laparotomy—a highly specialized oncology procedure in which abdominal organs are removed, biopsied or repaired and a definitive diagnosis can be made.

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The relentless waves of panic and the constant upheaval that I felt during that first harrowing  month have gradually receded, at least enough to make my existence bearable. But even now, after years in remission, the sometimes terrifying uncertainty of my everyday life has remained. Some people are able to cope with the fear and uncertainty in this world by embracing one particular religious faith, however I’ve discovered that I am not one of them. At first, I thought that religious people would have a particular psychological advantage in dealing with cancer, but I’ve learned that this notion isn’t always true.

Personally, I was raised in the Catholic faith but as an adult I have chosen not to attend church or practice the religion. Even without the many imposed traditions or the inherent sense of belonging, I have still been able to draw on spirituality to help me endure the life-shattering ordeal that I’ve been through. If you aren’t religious, it doesn’t mean that your cancer journey must be completely devoid of faith. I’ve nonetheless chosen to build a life on faith—faith in the power of good, faith in science, faith in healing, and faith in the possibility of miracles.