From a tumour to an abscess


Just to be clear, prologuing a blog post is not the same as proroguing Parliament. Among other things, I own this blog. Justin Trudeau does not own Parliament. We do. I am prologuing to explain what I’m doing. Trudeau prorogued to avoid explaining what he is doing.

One of the hazards of starting a blog like this is that sooner or later life gets in the way. Read through the collected works of John Lennon and you’ll learn that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans. Read through the collected works of me and you’ll see that quote used widely. And wisely, I hope.

Last February, on Valentine’s Day, I was diagnosed as having a rare and malignant neuroendocrine tumour on my pancreas. Instead of a dozen red roses, I was given a dozen and a half weeks of chemotherapy treatment. Near the end of it, I came down with yet another rare condition: an abscess in my lower spine. Discitis, it’s called, and it’s very painful.

For most of the months of July and August, I couldn’t think straight for long enough to sit straight and write a coherent paragraph. The set up I have for my computer work is an ergonomic nightmare. This doesn’t usually matter, but for those two summer months, the doctors who were looking after me did some of my thinking for me. They decided to hold off on the last bags of Irinotecan until they cleared up the abscess. No more chemo until the infection is gone. Now I’m back to where I was a month or two ago.


I am not certain I’m out of the woods yet, but I think I’m getting there. I can see a clearing up ahead. A little touch of meadow lying below the pines and the maples. Birds chirping in the trees. Squirrels chattering in the branches. Patches of sunshine lie on the grassy ground, inviting me to absorb as much of the newfound warmth as I can fit into my ever-evolving 21st century world. It’s one of the many health challenges that jump on us in this summer of living dangerously.

It has been dangerous, no doubt about it. I have now had two follow up CT scans to monitor the effect of chemotherapy on my tumour. After almost 18 weeks of pumping poison through my veins, it is smaller than it used to be. Down by about a third, they said. Everything was on target. At least, it was until it wasn’t.

Approaching the eighteenth week, almost the end of chemo treatment, I got bit by discitis. The first sign of it was the sudden disappearance of the annoying grin on my face. The second was the sudden appearance of the mother of all sore backs.

The staff in the Guelph oncology department said it wasn’t a consequence of the chemotherapy. It could have been a consequence of one of the side effects of the chemotherapy. The Irinotecan and Carboplatin have a way of weakening the body’s immune defenses. A bacteria could have snuck into my body at any time in the near past and waited for an opportunity to jump out and trip me up. That’s the scientific explanation that I learned in my first and only semester of Google Medschool.

Other doctors, all of whom successfully completed their education, took longer to pin down the cause of my sore back. The first one to give a diagnosis put it down to a pinched nerve. This was a bit off the mark, but not unreasonably so. A pinched nerve usually is the culprit.

OK, the emergency room doctor said to himself, this guy arrived here in an ambulance with a back so sore he couldn’t move. What should I tell him? 

OK, the doctor said to his patient, you have a pinched nerve. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Sometimes even ER doctors are so anxious to see the zebra that they miss the herd of horses.

If it’s not a pinched nerve, which it wasn’t, it’s often arthritis. But again, not always. Sometimes there’s more to it than that. Like now.

Somewhere along this chain of doctors, someone thought to take out the guesswork and arranged for me to get an MRI. This gave everyone a good look at the meat and potatoes of my spinal column. An MRI machine is a lot like a single passenger space pod. It shakes, rattles and rolls for as long as it takes for the team of technicians to emerge from their hiding places with a report that only they can understand.

They found a 2.5cm abscess between two discs in my spine and some sort of strep infection sitting where it doesn’t belong. I’m not well-schooled in spinal strep infections but let me tell you this: they are sore as a bugger. Not only that, but they are even more painful after they settle in.

Despite the best efforts of an assortment of neoliberal politicians who keep winning elections in our country, we still have a reasonably decent health care system. When we really need it, it rolls up its sleeves and gets to work. It did for me. I got to spend a week in the Guelph General Hospital where more nurses and doctors brought their skills to my bedside. I estimate that almost a dozen different doctors have mumbled Hippocratic oaths under their breath as they hunted down the cause of what ails me. 


That explains a lot of the delay in keeping this blog up to date. It threw me off balance. There is no doubt that cancer, or anything related to it, is a frightening thing to confront. Future posts on this front will be a lot less frequent.

A constant hope is that if we can bring ourselves to understand the monsters hiding under the bed, they will become less frightening. But when I shone a light on my tumour, I discovered some other truths that hadn’t worried me before. Now they do.

If I recover the energy to resuscitate this blog, I’d like to look at issues such as mortality and morality, or  ability and agility. Maybe I’ll just play the odds. After catching two very rare fish, one right after another, the odds against reeling in a third must be enormous.


  1. I am sorry to hear about your setback. As always I enjoy your prose and intense illumination of the very core of issues. I so appreciate your gifts. Thank you Alan and I send you my humble wishes. Catherine

  2. Keep up the fight. Hoping the pain leaves soon and you are on the road to recovery. Stay strong!

  3. Welcome back, Alan. And deep sympathy for the pain and distress you’ve been confronting with this second whammy. I would be interested in your thoughts on mortality when you feel up to it.

  4. Thanks, Al, for always being so eloquent. Why didn’t I know this ‘way back when? Well, anyway, I’m glad you’re back on track, and that they figured out what was up with your back. Look forward to more musings.

  5. I’m relieved to learn that your silence was “Only” because of the mother of all sore backs. I can well imagine the anguish you have been in. But in spite of all your eloquent way of putting pen to paper is refreshing and hopeful.
    Stay well. And witty.

  6. Oh Alan I really enjoy your writing and I am so glad you are back at it. At this point I think you should by a lottery ticket. Love you Alan!

  7. Best wishes, Dear Alan! I’m sure you are getting great care at GGH. Don’t hesitate to call if I can help in any way!

  8. Hi Alan — your wry words and angled sense of humour are an effective way of describing all the fun you’re having, even when you aren’t really having fun at all.
    In your corner, pulling for you — hope these two nasties are dispatched in the near future so you can return to life as you knew it. Take care
    Terry Lee

  9. I’ve missed you Alan. So very sorry to hear why we weren’t hearing from you. May the pain go soon and the cancer keep shrinking. You have much more in you that we are anxious to hear. Hugs, Bonnie & Gord

  10. I always enjoy reading your blog. Thanks Alan.

  11. We’ve shared an awful lot in the 74 years I’ve known you little brother… most of it really quite good and all of it very interesting. I’ll not get into describing how blood soaked the bandage was on your hand when you took a slice out of yourself in the A&W kitchen back in Dorval because your current pains are so much more consequential. Thanks for keeping immediate family updated between blogs. I appreciate knowing tears can still flow from these slightly older eyes. On Sept. 7 you complete 74 trips around the sun. Let’s keep ringing up that number. Love you!

  12. We missed you at our little get together at Rockwood yesterday, Alan. Best wishes.

  13. Hey Al, maybe the third one will be something good like maybe you’ll win the lottery.
    Get well my friend and keep being positive.


  14. Thanks Alan! We are glad to hear you have recovered, at least to the point of being able to write again. Best wishes for continued recovery.

  15. You did it! You were able to write another page for us. Not that you have to in any way. This is for yourself and you need to think about yourself first. But I appreciate your efforts, which are always dead-on as a writer and very inspiring. Know that you are regularly on my mind and that all my hopes and best wishes for a clean bill of health lie in your future.

  16. I was concerned Alan that you hadn’t written for some time in your blog. Then heard you had been in hospital. Wishing you relief of pain & back on track again. Take care. Marilyn C

  17. So sorry for the agonizing pain you have been enduring, the needless delays in finding the cause, and then the great relief of finding some answers and getting some real help. I love the way you express yourself.You are a good writer and a very authentic and open human being. Hoping you can continue to find some comfort and joy in life.

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