The three of us met by chance, ten years ago. I had just been diagnosed with stage 3 throat cancer with only a 40% chance of surviving. At the time, I was fifty-nine years old. As I left the oncologist’s office, I tried to remain positive, but I’ve never considered myself to be lucky. And everything I’ve ever gotten in life – I worked hard to get. But I’m not complaining – some people are born lucky and with a silver spoon in their mouth – while others benefit from their ‘connections.’ It’s why I seldom buy lottery tickets – although my buddy Norm and I have been sharing the cost of a weekly $10 Big Lottery for the past several years. But I get Norm to do the buying – in the hope that he’s luckier than me – even though we’re both cancer warriors.
At my orientation, the oncologist explained that I would be having thirty-seven days of radiation treatments as well as having three series of chemotherapy. He also told me that the radiation would be very intense and that it would harm my teeth and salivary gland. And that’s why my next appointment was at the cancer center’s oral dentistry department. And that’s where I met a smiling, Cathy, who was one of the dental technicians. I didn’t have a reason to smile, but Cathy was very understanding and patient with me as I completed the medical forms. I then met with the dentist and got a thorough examination of my teeth – as I wouldn’t be able to have any dental work done during the radiation and chemo treatment period – to prevent bleeding. I wasn’t even supposed to use dental floss – to avoid any chance of bleeding.
Several months later, I went in for my first examination after my cancer treatments had ended. Again, Cathy’s smiling face awaited me. But along with her smile, I could see a hint of cautious concern in Cathy’s eyes. All of the patients that she would see here are head and neck cancer patients – so she knew what I was about to face because of the damage caused by radiation. I learned that I now had only ten percent of saliva because of the damage done to the salivary glands. And it’s saliva in your mouth that prevents your teeth from decaying.
Over the next few years, I went to the dentist at the cancer center for all of my dental work, and Cathy’s smiling face was always there to greet me.
About a year after my treatments had ended, I became a volunteer at the cancer center that saved my life. During the cancer agency’s facility orientation, I was seated beside an employee who had just transferred to Surrey from the cancer center in Vancouver. We chatted for a few moments, and I learned that her name was Donna and that she was originally from Nova Scotia! I got excited and quickly did what I always said I’d never do: I asked her if she knew my friends Dale and Diane Fraser or Garth and Donna Smith, who were my neighbors when I lived in Bedford (1989-1992)? I mean, how would she be expected to know my friends – what are the chances? Answer: she didn’t know them. But then she told me that she worked in the oral dentistry department, as a dental technician.
‘That’s where I go for my dental work!’ I said and told her about my throat cancer. I also told her that the years that I spent in the Atlantic provinces (1989-97) were among the best years of my life.
I had been transferred to Halifax from Vancouver (I worked for General Motors of Canada) and spent three years in Bedford as a district sales manager for the provinces of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. In 1992, I got transferred to Moncton, New Brunswick where I was assistant zone sales manager (GM Parts), and senior accounts manager (ACDelco), for the Atlantic provinces – so I got to see and learn a lot about the region. I was transferred back to British Columbia in 1997, as western region sales manager for the ACDelco division until I retired in 2005.
I have often written about the loving care that I received at the cancer center in Surrey, where I received my cancer treatments. The doctors, nurses, therapists, administrative assistants, and even the custodians are all dedicated and hard-working, and as a patient, I could feel their love and concern – on each of my many visits for treatments and follow-up. And the care and concern I received from Cathy and Donna in the dental department were unbelievable. We became good friends and have remained so for the past ten years.
I have wanted to write about the cancer center and why I quit being a volunteer (2011-15), but it’s difficult to be critical of an organization that saved my life. However, my concerns and criticisms are only directed to the management of the BC Cancer Agency and the BC Cancer Foundation.
I was also a committee member of the UBC Dentistry/BC Cancer Foundation Oral Cancer Next Generation Clinic initiatives, and I have been a patient advocate and speaker at several cancer fundraisers and dental study groups. I also served a term as a patient advisor on the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer, Membership Steering Committee.
But before I explain the reasons for leaving my volunteer position at BC Cancer Agency, I want to devote a chapter of this story to my gal pals, Cathy and Donna.
Chapter 2 – Cathy, Donna, and Bertrand
It’s Sunday, July 21, 2019, at 5:30 am, and I’ve been listening to music for the last three hours. As you know, Holly loves to get up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning to go pee outside. She wakes me by standing on my back if I’m laying on my stomach or she’ll stand on my legs if I’m on my back. Only dog owners will understand why it’s okay for dogs to sleep on the bed with their daddy or mommy.
But let’s get back to the reunion story…
It’s always been a challenge for me to write, and I know that my grammar is terrible but I always try to express in words, some of the things that have influenced me and touched my heart. But some things are difficult to write about – especially if it’s about a loved one who’s passed away or a broken dream. A week or so ago, I was at the dentist office and Debbie, the dental hygienist was cleaning my teeth. I met Debbie several years ago at the cancer center, where she worked part-time. She is also friends with my gal pals Cathy and Donna.
Every time I visit the Croydon Dental office in South Surrey, Debbie and I, bring each other up-to-date on what’s happening with our friends Cathy and Donna. I’ve written previously about Dr. Mouna, my dentist, whom I also love – she’s like a daughter to me. I have never had a better dentist or been to a better dental office than Croydon Dental. By the way, I haven’t been back to the cancer center’s oral dentistry department for a couple of years. I’m telling this story now because Cathy and Donna are now both retired from the BC Cancer Agency.
I won’t tell you a lot about my gal pals personal lives because I don’t know their respective life stories – but I do know a few things, including the fact that both Cathy and Donna are grandmothers. I’ve been searching through my photo library and can only find photos of them with Santa Danny. Now, look at the following picture and tell me: does Cathy look old enough to have four grandkids?
And although I don’t have a picture of just Donna and Santa Danny, I do have the following photo of Donna and Cathy with Dr. Bertrand Chan, the oral dental surgeon, and a great friend.
As I previously mentioned, Donna and I became friends when we met at the Surrey Memorial Hospital/Fraser Valley Cancer Center orientation session. She had transferred from the dental department of the cancer center in Vancouver at about the same time that I had started volunteering. It wasn’t until a few years later and many visits to the oral dentistry at the cancer center, that Donna’s husband Terry, had cancer and was in bad shape. He had undergone some very painful treatments and was having a difficult time. I also learned from Donna that Terry was a huge Seattle Seahawks fan. So Terry and I had that in common – and we both also had cancer.
Donna and I would talk about Terry’s battle and I admired his courage. When I was in Seattle at a Seahawk’s game, I bought some souvenirs for Terry – in hopes that it would bring some enjoyment in his final days. I also remember talking with him in the chemo waiting room.
I was in Ontario visiting friends and family in the late summer of 2015 when I got word that Terry had passed away, and I booked a return flight home to attend the funeral service in Richmond. Terry had been an active officer of the Navy Cadets and he was given a full military honors service. There was standing room only at the service and I got up to say a few words about Terry’s battle and Donna’s dedication to not only Terry but also the many cancer patients that she sees every day. The ceremony closed with a naval honor guard and band marching to the edge of the Fraser River, where Donna spread some of Terry’s ashes. there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. Donna would spread the remainder of the ashes later, in Nova Scotia.
Among the many guests at the funeral service, were employees of the BC Cancer Agency. I was thrilled that so many people who worked with Donna were able to attend the service. Many of us had tears in our eyes as we watched Donna and her family walking in the procession to the river’s edge, including Bertrand, the awesome oral surgeon and great friend of Donna, Cathy and me.
When it comes down to it – we’re all connected. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor; smart or not-so-smart; young or old; – we’re all humans searching for love and happiness. Dr. Bertrand Chan is the first doctor that I’ve ever addressed by their first name and that’s because he’s become a very dear friend.
And for the year after my cancer treatments – my only visits to the cancer center was to see my oncologist every three months and visit the oral dental department every few months or sooner if I lost another tooth. As mentioned, the radiation killed most of my salivary glands and my teeth were rotting in my mouth. But it was those visits to the cancer center that made me feel connected. The people who worked there were like family – although the only people I knew there were my oncologists and Cathy, Donna and Bertrand. There was also a feeling that consumed me at the time – a desire to ‘payback’ the kindness and love I received from so many nameless people at the cancer center.
So I applied to be a volunteer at the cancer center in 2011.
Chapter 3 – Volunteering
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. ~ Aeschylus
It was one of the most rewarding things that I have ever done in my life – volunteering. But the almost five years volunteering at the cancer center was to have an abrupt and unhappy ending.
To be continued.
Dedicated to Cathy Clearie, Donna Misner and Dr. Bertrand Chan
Today’s tune from Danny’s library (purchased):
You Are Not Alone – lyrics
Say goodbye to all your pain and sorrow
Say goodbye to all those lonely nights
Say goodbye to all your blue tomorrows
Now you’re standing in the light
I know sometimes you feel so helpless
Sometimes you feel like you can’t win
Sometimes you feel so isolated
You’ll never have to feel that way again
You are not alone
You’re not alone
Never thought I’d find the road to freedom
Never thought I’d see you smile again
Never thought I’d have the chance to tell you
That I will always be your friend
You are not alone
You’re not alone
Songwriters: Glenn Lewis Frey
You Are Not Alone lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, Red Cloud Music