Chemo and birds

I live 1.6 kilometres from the corner of Metcalfe Street and Speedvale Avenue. Pretty close to three and a quarter kilometres there and back. About fifty minutes walking, as long as it isn’t raining. Cool and windy is fine. Wet and miserable isn’t.

Some days, I go a bit longer. If I turn left at Speedvale and go down to Delhi and then home, it’s about 3.8 km round trip. If I turn right and go up to Stevenson, over to Palmer Street, down to Metcalfe and home, it’s about four and a half. About 65 minutes if I don’t have to wait too long at major intersections.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve been getting out for these walks as often as I can. The chemotherapy training manual said I should walk about 30 minutes a day. I figure that if half an hour is good, one hour must be better. I’m not foolish enough to think two hours would be even more so. Four times as good as the recommended daily dose is a bit too much goodness for me.

I got a walk in this afternoon. It’s the last day of the second treatment cycle. I haven’t had any therapeutic poison in 14 days. Last Wednesday was my day off. Tomorrow is day one of cycle three, meaning I have a lazy boy chair reserved for 9:30 occupancy. I think these regular days off are the oncologists’ way of reminding me what life was like before the diagnosis. And letting me know what I can look forward to after ringing the chemo bell.

As it turns out, I’m finding more time to do things I enjoy while I’m under the cover of covid and cancer. The cancer I have is a rare one. So rare that my escapist brain doesn’t even register it as a cancer. It’s a NET, as those of us who know about these things call a neuroendocrine tumour. That’s different, right? If it’s a net, it’s not a cancer, right?

The fact that it’s resting on the edge of my pancreas is a complicating factor compounding the inconvenience, but still. Like everything that ever happens, it could be worse. When I go in tomorrow, I’ll see how much worse. I’ll be surrounded by people who would gladly swap a cancerous kidney for a net.

One of the things I’m doing a bit more of is reading. The book keeping me awake between naps these days is The First Cell by Azra Raza. It’s still early pages but she has already made the point that treating cancer as one disease is like treating Africa as one country.  All the occupants of all the chairs in the infusion room are in their own countries with their own borders and their own pains.

Raza goes on to say that cancer “is a perfect example of intelligence at a molecular level, able to perceive its environment and take actions that maximize its chances of survival.” She’d know. She is an editor of the high brow web site 3 Quarks Daily.

On top of that, Raza is the Chan Soon-Shiong Professor of Medicine and the Director of the MDS Centre at Columbia University. MDS is short form for something nobody knows how to spell. All we need to know is that it’s all about leukemia.

When people talk about cancer, there’s a tendency to frame the topic in warlike words. It’s a battle we try to win, but we don’t consider that while the doctors and researchers are fighting in our corner, the disease is fighting its own corner. It’s not always clear which side has its back against the wall at any given moment. The only good thing to say about cancer is that it isn’t contagious.

What is contagious is bird watching. All this social distancing leaves me sitting by myself in the back yard more than before. I like to keep a book on my lap and my camera close at hand, waiting for a photogenic bird to approach the feeders. I’ve been infected by the birding virus.

I’ve had robins on the lawn, and goldfinches in a tree. Starlings, grackles, chickadees, nuthatches and sparrows fill their stomachs with my bird seed. A couple of days ago, I completed the baseball trilogy. I had already seen cardinals and blue jays in the garden. Now I’ve seen this year’s first, for me at least, Baltimore oriole.

That’s not all. One afternoon I saw a couple of small brown and white birds wandering around among the newly sprouting plants. The birds looked like sparrows to me. I got a nice picture of one that flew up to sit on the top rail of the chain link fence. When I posted the photo to my Flickr account, I found out it was a hermit thrush, a rare bird that even seasoned birders feel lucky to find.

Rather than think of all this as a battle, I’m thinking of it as a journey that began with the discovery of a rare tumour. Walking at an average pace of three kilometres per day, I’ve arrived at the discovery of a rare hermit thrush. As journeys go, it could be worse.


  1. A damn fine post, Alan.

  2. The medical field always tells us we need daily exercise. I can picture you as an avid walker/hiker at one time. Is that correct? I wish bird watching was contagious on the 17th floor doesn’t help & I would need a better lens. We only get the occasional pigeon….once though a hawk sitting on the railing. Your photos of the oriole are amazing!! It must be rewarding to capture shots like that. Marilyn

  3. Beautiful, as always. I laughed to read your cancer is very rare. So was PP’s. You two are so much alike. No wonder we all get along. But your Little Lynne is ‘way more disciplined than I. Enjoy your chair time tomorrow. We’ll be thinking of you. P.S. a little something to tickle your funny bone. The ultrasound place called to remind pp he has an appointment to get scans of his right kidney. Good luck with that, since it went on March 26. The young guy who called laughed and said, I guess you don’t have to come since they can’t get nothing. Ok.

  4. Delightful writing amid what has actually become your surprisingly delightful journey… the birds you capture virtually are amazing though my favourite remains the owl in the tree trunk. Food for thought how much beauty we can experience when we slow down to do more than just smell the roses. ks for sharing your delights. <3

  5. Lovely Alan. Hope to see you soon in one of the upcoming Zoom chats.

  6. I will admit that when you first started with a ‘cancer’ theme in your blog, I shied away. To be unkind to myself, as if it was leprosy. Today I took the challenge of reading today’s tale, and I am in awe of your ability to put down on virtual paper the story of your progress… and the deference to the little things that make life a bit better. I wish you the best, which is to say that I hope you continue to write with such gentle words …

  7. Excellent read, thanks Al!

  8. Love your photos of the Baltimore Oriole ! I have a pair as well and they are going through my oranges like crazy….Think I’ll have to hang out my hummingbird feeder soon as they will use that as well. Happy birdwatching !

  9. I find your blog charming and insightful.
    I hope you enjoy writing as much as many of us enjoy reading.

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