The year from hell

(25 October 2020)

I was 28 years old before I had my first night in a hospital. That includes the time I spent being born and learning to breast feed. That happened in the upstairs bedroom of 34 Gala Street in Glasgow. It was roughly nine months after my father was released from the Royal Navy and sent home from the war. My parents already had my older brother on their hands. He was a month short of his second birthday when I arrived. They rented the room in the house next door to my grandparents.

In the summer of 1975 I was married with two sons when a trip to the dentist discovered I had a bunch of impacted teeth. Four  were lying sideways inside the gum. As I think back, I figure he must have bought himself a new x-ray machine, because these rogue teeth had never revealed themselves before. The dentist said they had to come out, and out they came. It involved checking into St. Joseph’s Hospital on Westmount Road one morning and checking out the next day. My first overnight hospital stay.

That was it for me and hospitals until I was 59. Wednesday January 11, 2006 was the morning after a fund raiser for NDP candidate Phil Allt. The Kramdens were on form, and the joint was jumping. By nine o’clock the next morning I’d had half a dozen cigarettes, a hangover, and a heart attack. I had a newly opened pack of Export “A” Light in my pocket. After taking me to the hospital, Lynne crumpled it up and threw it in the garbage. I have neither purchased nor consumed a cigarette since.

This year I more than made up for all the  time I didn’t spend in hospital in my first 73. For a week last August I had my own bed on the 4th floor of Guelph General Hospital. I mention this now because last February I blithely turned this blog into a chronicle of my journey through the cancer care system. It began with chemotherapy and moved over to radiation. Although I’m not out of the woods yet, I can see a clearing up ahead. My daughter thinks I should think about where on my arm to put a zebra tattoo. One of my sons thinks I should update this blog.

Speaking about this blog, I had an appointment with my family doctor the other day. When I summarized my year so far, while trying to establish the root and branch of my growing feelings of anxiety, she asked me if I like to write. I said well, funny you ask. She asked why I don’t write about this experience and why not write about the things I’ve been through and what I’ve learned from them.

So here I go again. By way of recalibrating, I’ll quickly summarize how the year has been so far. Then, in future posts, we’ll get into lessons learned and tangents followed.

Where have I been since this year from hell broke upon the world? At the end of January, I couldn’t shave without looking in the mirror and thinking my chest was turning yellow. I went to my doctor and she referred me over to a gastroenterologist. He scheduled me for a procedure on Valentine’s Day and discovered the tumour on my pancreas. A stent in my bile duct cured the jaundice and set me on the road to cancer treatment.

In March, the pandemic got more serious. So did distancing protocols. Meetings with the Grand River Cancer Centre oncologists were gradually moved over to the speaker phone. On April 08 I began my 18-weeks of chemotherapy treatment. In June, they added a COVID swab to my routine every three weeks.

By then, my back pain was getting unbearable. The doctors spent most of June and July trying to identify the cause of it. On July 06, it was so bad that Lynne called an ambulance to take me to the hospital. An emergency room doctor misdiagnosed it as a pinched nerve and prescribed some mild pain killers.

On July 30 I was checked into the hospital for a week. An MRI revealed an abscess between two discs in my lower spine. The clinical name for it is discitis, an uncommon spinal condition affecting approximately 1 out of every 100,000 people in the United States. I got a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC line) inserted in my upper arm to allow for some home intravenous antibiotics. Lynne was able to administer them twice a day for eight weeks. The last dose of chemo was cancelled on July 28 because of the infection

It took until September 24 to clear up the discitis. A second MRI showed that the abscess was gone. On October 13 they prepped me for radiation treatment: five doses over five consecutive weekdays, starting on October 15 and ending on October 21. At the end of November, I’ll know how effective it  was. That’s when I’ll get more blood work, another CT Scan and oncologist consultations. Fingers crossed that the tumour will have changed into harmless scar tissue.

That’s it for me in this year of living dangerously. I don’t ask for much, but I do want to be the person whose cancer started and ended happily during a pandemic.


  1. Congratulations to you and your family for fighting right along side of you! Stay well and rest well.

  2. Thanks, as always, Al, for the wonderful writing. I also hope that you will be that person — cancer, then cancer-free in this most awful 2020.

  3. I am so glad you are back on line.Rolf showed me your lovely photos on the group web site.He said “he’s up and about again”…so that was good news. You have definetly been a fighter and it sounds like good news. I wish you the best with your pending chemo treatments . I have completed 4 Gale writing course and will always be grateful for your recommendation of them. Stay well and sending best wishes to you and Lynne.Catherine Reilly and Rolf Archipow.

  4. Grief on top of grief, Alan you sure didn’t need the discitis! Good to hear you latest report. Be well.

  5. Welcome back AGP. Between 7 Sept and 11 Oct I did feel the heat of you having closed the gap to us being 74 and 75. I breathe easier again now we’re back to a 74 and 76 two year gap. Might not be relevant to most readers but you and MMP’s #3 (RVP) is also one year and eleven months. Scottish humour perhaps designed to keep us alert and on our toes. I’m counting on you being able to bang the gong legit soon. Yours truly, CEP.

  6. Wishing you all the best for a speedy and full recovery. Thanks for sharing Alan

  7. I want you to be that person too, Alan. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. I look forward to many more chapters on this blog.

  8. Thanks for keeping us all informed, looking forward to your complete recovery.

  9. Glad to see you back and writing so well. Let’s all hope you hit a bull’s-eye at the end of November.

  10. I have the same wish for you, Alan. Thanks for sharing your life with us.

  11. Alan,
    You have such a wonderful way of expressing your feelings with others. Wishing you a cancer free report the end of Nov.

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