They say hindsight's 20/20. One of the most common questions I get asked after people learn of my cancer is if, looking back, there were signs I missed? Are there things that, in hindsight, should have tipped me off that something was wrong?
I finally figured out that what people are really asking is, Tell me why you got cancer, so I can compare your life to mine, and feel safe again.
I'm not saying people are self-centred & only concerned about themselves. Not at all! On the contrary, I think this is a perfectly natural coping method that we all engage in. I know I've done the same thing many times. We hear about some horrible natural disaster that killed hundreds of people, and we think, well, I don't live somewhere where tornadoes/floods/earthquakes/etc. happen semi-regularly, so that couldn't happen to me. We hear about a fatal car accident, and we think, well, I wouldn't have been driving that fast under those conditions, so that couldn't happen to me. We hear about someone being diagnosed with lung cancer, and we feel sorry for them, but deep down we're consoled by the fact that they've been a heavy smoker for fifty years. Couldn't happen to me.
It's all part of the very human need to feel in control of our lives. Our method of coping when we come face-to-face with circumstances beyond human control is to find an explanation, a reason, a way we're different, a way it couldn't happen to us, so we can feel safe again.
Which is why a lot of folks are really struggling to accept what's happening to me. They look at me and say, she's only 32. Reasonably healthy, never smoked, seldom drinks. No family history of stomach cancer. Lived her whole life in Canada, other than a few brief trips to nice touristy places. Always worked white-collar jobs in nice offices (no blue-collar exposures to toxins). There seams to be no reason for me to suddenly have stage IV cancer. But I do. And if it can happen to me, it could happen to anybody. Which scares the pants off people. We all want things to happen for a reason, because if there's a reason, a cause, we can avoid said cause & stay safe. We can protect ourselves & those we love.
So people want to hear about my earliest symptoms. How was my cancer found? My next post is another very long one I've been working on for quite a while, that will detail the journey from when I first started to experience abdominal pain to the final diagnosis of stage IV stomach cancer (about a month, all told). But here I'll go over the more "ancient" history.
Because I do have a history of stomach problems. For most of my adult life, I suffered from sudden bouts of diarrhea. I first remember noticing it in my early years of university, so in my late teens. At first it mostly occurred when my dad would take me out for a nice dinner... I joked that I was allergic to "real food", that my body had grown accustomed to living solely on junk.
And it *was* junk. I was never much of a cook, and more or less lived on the "5 Cs": Chips, Candy, Chocolate, & Coca-Cola. My stomach problems would wax & wane & wax again. The problem would be practically non-existent for months at a time. Sometimes it was only a minor inconvenience. And sometimes, it would get so bad I would have to plan my whole life around the ever-present possibility that I would suddenly, urgently need a washroom.
I did ask various doctors over the years if there was anything to be done. They would ask me a few questions, and then say it sounded like I had a "nervous stomach". Their advice was, if I noticed any particular foods that didn't agree with me, avoid them. No shit, Sherlock! None of the doctors ever seemed concerned, or suggested that my troubles could be a sign of something serious.
I did try various cures & treatments over the years. For a time it seemed like red meat (steak in particular) was causing my symptoms, so I stopped eating that for a few years, eventually adding it back but only in small portions. I also tried various bowel cleanses and digestive herbs. Most seemed to help a little, or for a little while, but nothing ever got rid of the problem completely.
Of course I googled & read books, about IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and similar conditions, but none of them seemed a really strong match to my own symptoms. I do remember one article that talked about "bathroom mapping", which hit home in a big way. Bathroom Mapping is a term for when the very first thing you notice about any new place you visit is where the washroom is. This was something that I'd done for so long it was second nature; until I saw it named, it never occurred to me that everyone doesn't do this. Every store I shop at, I can tell you where their washroom is, and how open they are to letting customers use it. I can still tell you the same about most of Ottawa, a city I haven't set foot in for seven years now. That's how deep the need & knowledge goes.
My symptoms got really, really bad last summer & fall (of 2010). Near-catastrophic incidents during trips to Calgary & Vancouver made it clear that something *had* to change, that I couldn't live like this anymore. The suddenness of the diarrhea was at this point so bad that I was basically a hostage: Sterling & I couldn't even go out for a simple dinner & a movie. The only method I had to cope with my symptoms was to just not eat for several hours before I had plans. I often wished that not eating for the rest of my life was a viable option.
Finally, desperate, I took the recommendation of several coworkers and went to see a naturopath. At the end of my very first appointment, he told me he could help me. I cried, I was so relieved & happy. He ordered an ALCAT blood test, which tests for food sensitivities (not allergies). When the report came back in mid-December, it showed that I was highly sensitive to two foods: cottonseed oil (used in lots of potato chips & fast food) and cane sugar. All that junk I'd been living on for all those years was what was making me sick. I was also moderately sensitive to an additional ten foods, ranging from gluten to carrots to strawberries to salmon.
The recommended treatment for food sensitivities was to cut out all highly & moderately sensitive foods for 3-6 months, and then gradually try and reintroduce them into your diet. I made this drastic diet change right before Christmas 2010... and by the time I came back to work after the Christmas/New Year break, a scant three weeks later, I'd lost 20 pounds. I continued to lose weight until my final weight loss currently sits around 40 pounds. As nice as the weight loss was, even more exciting was that it did clear up my digestive problems. No more embarrassing mad dashes to the bathroom! I felt like I'd gotten my life back.
Then, the pain started. And I was diagnosed with cancer.
After my cancer diagnosis, I explained this history of stomach problems to several of my doctors. I was so scared. Scared that a decade of stomach problems I'd mostly ignored had been signs of the cancer, and if only I'd taken them more seriously, my cancer would have been found before it spread. Or at the very least, I thought, maybe my sudden, drastic diet change had something to do with the cancer. Given the timing, it seemed unlikely to all be just a coincidence.
But the doctors all told me, that even with the benefit of hindsight, if they'd seen me with these original stomach symptoms, they would have also thought food sensitivities, or IBS, or a similar disorder, but not cancer. None of them seemed to think my old stomach problems were related to the cancer at all. And once the oncologist got involved, and said he estimated the cancer started about a year ago, I was able to think back a year and rack my brain trying to find something that changed around that time. I couldn't think of anything.
The only symptom the doctors agreed might have been an early warning sign was how quickly I lost weight last Christmas. But I couldn't even feel bad about missing that one, because if you had seen the amount of candy, deep-fried food, and pop I'd been consuming & suddenly cut out cold-turkey, the weight loss didn't seem that unreasonable. Also, everyone around me agreed that it seemed like a healthy weight loss. I didn't look sickly; on the contrary, I looked so good it inspired several people in my life to diet/exercise more.
No matter how I look at it, there just wasn't much for signs that cancer was growing inside me. I was mostly relieved to learn that I hadn't "caused" this, that I didn't have to add guilt to an already heaping emotional plate. But I was also a little disappointed. Part of me was, like everyone else, hoping for a reason and searching for an explanation. But there just doesn't seem to be an easy answer in this case. Life isn't fair, or logical. Sometimes good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people. Some people win the lottery, and some get cancer for no apparent reason.
Hindsight can't give me a reason for why this is happening to me, but I still believe with all my heart that there *is* a reason. And since hindsight has failed, the key to finding that reason must be foresight. I haven't found my reason, my explanation yet, though I have caught a few glimpses of it, including this one in the form of a video posted on my FaceBook wall by m'colleague Brodie:
Gods & Goddesses, what a ridiculously long post this has become! And I still don't really know what I've been trying to say. I guess I'll end with an Irish Blessing:
"May you have the hindsight to know where you've been,
The foresight to know where you are going,
And the insight to know when you have gone too far."