23 July 2011


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."


  1. I like long posts:) I liked this post. It is good to have a place with so many of the questions about your symptoms answered. Because they do sit in the back of your mind. this horrible distrust of my own body and feverant wish that these things made sense. Sucky that so many people have food sensitivities and IBS. I sometimes wonder if these are new things or if people in old books who had consumption or were sickly were just really ill suited for their diets as well. Sabrina

  2. You're right, it makes me think if I've had any stomach problems and all I can remember is having trouble with constipation on and off all my life but I just assume it's not enough fiber. In my case, it's probably true. Because when I consciously try to include more and eat better it goes away.
    Keep up the long posts, I enjoy them. And I bet they are cathartic.

  3. I didn't find it all that long at all, and I think your thought process is very easy to follow the way you've written it... well done Holly. I bet the quest for a rational explanation is normal to all who face a challenge like this. I know that as your father I'm still coming to grips with this new reality! I've always hated that "life is unfair"... because it's not how it should be, or how I want it to be. Ever since you were an infant I've believed that my primary purpose, my most important job in life, bar none... is to protect you (and Heather and Heath when they came along). Now I find I can't, and it's REALLY pi**ing me off! Hang in there kid and keep writing, your courage and forthrightness is an inspiration to us all... love always, Dad.

  4. Dear Holly, you are a brave woman. As a cancer patient I know what it is like to get a disease that you never thought you would ever get in your life, how it rocks your world, everything is now slightly tilted off balance in the world.

    As the mother of someone who had cancer, I have spent too much time wondering if it was something that I did that caused my daughters cancer, or the pesticides on the lawn or in our food?

    Rick and I are sending all our positive energy your way, even though we have never met I hope we do some day, we love your dad and Leah and will do anything to help.

    Michelle Williams

  5. Hi babe. well I have discovered a way to post. Googled and many people had the same problem. The tip that helped me was to not enable the remember me when i signed in and now i can post. You are a very strong woman and I am glad you have so many support. You deserve all the love. xx

  6. Hi Holly,

    I've been following your journey from afar and like so many people I am praying for you and cheering you on as you battle this terrible disease.

    In my life I've met many people who have encountered devastating and unexpected trauma and illness and I have observed the incredible strength of the human spirit. A positive attitude and perspective are critical. A sense of hope and the ability to see beauty, love, meaning and purpose in every day makes all the difference.

    There are things that happen to us that we can’t control but we can control how we respond. You clearly haven't given up hope and you have clearly not given up your spirit. Your attitude and your ability to stay positive, develop a battle plan to fight this disease and live your life and every moment to its fullest and to make a difference along the way is amazing.

    Holly, your blogs and insight are extremely inspirational, thought provoking and moving. I want to encourage you to always have hope and never give up on your dreams.

    Anything is possible!

    Rick Hansen

  7. You all say *I'm* inspirational, but reading comments like these brings tears to my eyes & makes me determined to keep on keeping on. Thank you so much... you'll never know just how much how all your love & kind words mean to me.


  8. Well said... now that's the tenacious young woman we all admire, love and are pulling for!