Chemo in the time of COVID

Cheering and booing swept across the country after hospitals cancelled elective surgery. People on the list for a colonoscopy sang out in perfect harmony: put it off for as long as you like was the chorus. The boos came from everyone waiting for cataract surgery who’ll have to put up with cloudy vision for a while longer. They will welcome the moment they no longer see the world through what looks like a Vaseline film.

Those of us with more immediate needs like child birth or chemotherapy will still be attended to. For myself, there are no more grandchildren on the horizon. No grandnieces or nephews bubbling in any reproductive cauldrons that I’m aware of. There’s still that pesky little neuroendocrine tumour that needs fixing.

Getting into the hospital for treatment isn’t as easy during a pandemic lock down as it was before. If you are sick enough, or damaged enough, you can still get through the front door. If you’re not, you should do what everyone else in town has to do: stay home, behave yourself, and stay out of trouble. If you don’t, you may get into the hospital sooner than you wanted. The choice is between self-isolation or self-immolation.

If you haven’t been to a hospital lately, you might be interested in what’s involved. You are in luck. I was there twice this week getting some essential work done on my innards. I can tell you what I went through to get through Wednesday. Like all things in life, it could have been worse even though my organs aren’t nearly as happy as Dave”Baby” Cortez’s was in 1959.

The first thing to know is that I still have my flowing head of silvery hair. At least, what I didn’t tear out years ago when three sons and a daughter were teen angels.

This week, I was at the Guelph General on Monday and Wednesday mornings. The entry was the same both times, but once in, I was sent in two different directions.

On Monday I was sent to up the elevator to day surgery for my second ERCP. You can get an idea of what that’s like when you realize those four letters are the short form for three words. I challenge you to get the third one down on any Scrabble board: Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography.

On Valentine’s Day, the surgeon put a stent into my bile duct. What a gift! That was when he found the tumour. On Monday he took the stent out and put in a clean new one. The procedure went like clockwork while I slept through it. When it was finished, Lynne was called to bring me home. I’ll get the results on June 08. Initial indications are encouraging. The stent works wonders on my daily movements.

On Wednesday I was back to the chemo room. Lynne dropped me off at the front door on both days. That was as close as she could get because she’s still healthy. Only the sick and the staff get past the entrance. To do that, I had to apply hand sanitizer, answer four questions about where I’ve been, who I’ve seen, what I’ve done, and how I feel. The nurses took my temperature and gave me a green “PATIENT” label to stick on the front of my shirt. At this stage I become the noun while the staff are the adjectives.

I was sent across the foyer to the ambulatory care reception desk where I was asked all the same questions again. The receptionist swiped my health card and printed a sheet of bar-coded labels. One label went onto a wrist band, the wrist band went on my left wrist, and I went to the ambulatory care nurse’s station.

The first step is to get blood drawn and tested. That’s a regular procedure to check white blood cells and platelets. If they’re low, your immune system is down and you don’t get the chemo until they’re brought back into range.

The ward clerk scanned the wrist band, called the blood lab, weighed me, took my blood pressure, and sat me at a touch screen computer. I completed a survey about my general feelings of well-being, using hand sanitizer before and after.

I was told to sit and wait for the blood-taking technician who came soon enough and took a couple of vials. The lab report was ready within an hour: good white cells and platelets.

Then I had a consultation with Doctor Robinson. She’s the Guelph oncologist on the team put together by Doctor Valdes. He’s in charge of the chemotherapy unit of the Grand River Cancer Centre in Kitchener. The team was assembled for the specific purpose of getting the neuroendocrine tumour in my gut to start behaving itself. This could take at least 18 weeks, four of which are behind me now.

Doctor Robinson answered my questions about diagnosis and prognosis. The diagnosis is that a malignant tumour is on my pancreas, but it isn’t pancreatic cancer. That’s significantly good news. The prognosis for pancreatic cancer is measured in months. For the tumour, it’s measured in years.

From the doctor’s office I went over to the chemo infusion room, past the bell on the wall that signals the completion of someone’s chemo treatment. I should be ready to ring it by mid-August if everything goes well.

It should do, because everyone involved is acutely aware of what they are doing. Except for me, of course. As soon as I sit in the chair I become a passenger on a ship they are steering. The best of the crew had to be the nurse who looked after my intravenous drip. She told me she’s been reading this blog and complimented me on the photos I post to Flickr. I liked her straight away. She has very good taste in blogs and photographs. A scientific mind and an artistic soul.

From there it was a couple of treatment hours until all the bags were emptied and they sent me home. Before leaving I went half way up the stairs to the second floor bistro and captured the foyer on my Blackberry. It was around 11:00 and pretty quiet.

I texted Lynne to come and fetch me to go home. We were no sooner in the door than she told me to take off my clothes. She wanted to put them into the washing machine. I showered, had lunch, and went for a nap.

Now you know what I know about getting chemotherapy in the middle of a global pandemic.


I still haven’t found a good song to illustrate the chemotherapy side of life. Any suggestions are welcome in the comments section. For today’s COVID-19 song I found this version of Bohemian Virus Rhapsody by Jennifer Corday. You’ll know the tune.


  1. Thank you fort the update Alan. Things seem stable and that is encouraging. Rolf and I are cheering for you. Sending you metta.

  2. Thanks, Al, for this. Happy to know it’s not pancreatic cancer. But what’s the difference between a tumour on the pancreas and pancreatic cancer? So glad you’re a writer sharing your journey with us. Our hospital is the same, but this week they started asking more than the usual questions at the first stop. And only the original ones at admissions, and none at all at the fracture clinic.

    1. Author

      Good question. I think in pancreatic cancer the cancer cells are inside the organ while a tumour attaches to the outside and can spread to other organs and lymph nodes. The differences are probably a lot more complicated than this.

  3. Excellent news at this point Alan. I thought you were going to get a little racy when you mentioned that Lynne said to take off your clothes. Gotta love a little bit of humour now and then. Take care my friend

  4. Been wondering for a while where you were. I wish you the best .

  5. Thanks for letting us share your difficult journey. Hugs

  6. Thank You for sharing Alan. Laurie and I have Nurses from GGH living both sides of us on our Downtown St. Glad to hear your doing well. Met up with Ed the other day at the bench that’s how I got to your site. Yes, great pictures and kind regards to you and Lynne.

    Colin Vos

  7. Sounds like you are in the good hands of an excellent team of medical professionals. Far better you be doing that with them than taking me up on my box cutter and scissors kit. One major question you’ve left hanging in this blog suspense filled atmosphere… did your eyebrows at least twitch when Lynne got you home and told you to take off your clothes. Were you at least tempted to tell her to “relax girl friend I’m just coming from chemo and need to rest”?

  8. I so enjoy your writing! The content is fascinating and the style is quite wonderful.
    And I hadn’t thought about Dave “Baby” Cortez in well more than half a century (!!??!).
    Continue your journey as a fine writer and medical educator.
    Most importantly, be safe, continued positive healing and solidarity!

  9. Your Covid theme photos on Flickr are great. Next time that Lynne tells you to take off your clothes, have her take a photo to post on Flickr. It would be good to have some racy photos on Flickr, and could be justified as being within the Covid category.

    1. Perhaps in Thinker pose rather than David…. but whatever… you survived the 60s in the last century… methinks we’d best leave this to Lynne’s better nature.

  10. Pops. Good to see you and mean Lynne this morning. I can attest to the readership the hair is still flowing – or at least from what I could see under the hat. As your grandkids would say, “that’s some nice salad, there, grandpa. Spicy arugula…”. The

    The COVID19 song of the day has to the bbc stay home live lounge allstars cover of the foo fighters’ Times Like These. Kind of like the We Are the World, or the Canadian equivalent from Northern Lights of our era. Which is to say a bunch of artists your kids know, but you’ve never heard of, and grates on your last nerve…


    1. LOL… keeping him on his toes…

  11. Great writing, as usual Alan. Keep sending these amusing and insightful missives. Sounds like you’re in good spirits and that can only help. Best to you as you keep up the good fight.

  12. Hang in there buddy. Many more miles to go.

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