I was back at the Cancer Centre last week for my six month post-treatment checkup with my oncologist. Just over a year ago in April 2017, I had never set foot in the (old name) Oshawa Hospital, or what I have affectionately renamed as the Lakeridge Health Oshawa Spa. The Ajax-Pickering Hospital was closer to home and served all my needs, including the delivery of my son twenty years ago.
And Oshawa was … decidedly the ‘Shwa to me. South ‘Shwa was a place best avoided.
I recall attending a meetup event at a local line dancing bar on Simcoe St. just north of the 401 Highway. I parked, and after looking at the vagrants rummaging through the garbage bins, decided to wait for my friends in the car. My girlfriend arrived and pulled her car into what appeared to be a choice parking spot in front of the bar. The beefy security guard rapped on her car hood and pointed to the sign on the door stating “Park At Your Own Risk”. We looked questioningly at her until she explained … “Around midnight the fights and beer bottles will roll out that door and onto the hood of your car,” she told us. We moved, went inside and left thirty minutes later, never to return. I refused to drink anything from a glass or use the facilities.
Oshawa has been described as the armpit of Toronto, filled with crackheads and society’s unfortunates in varying mental states who make it uncomfortable or dangerous to walk in downtown streets alone. It didn’t start out as the white trash version of Detroit but it sure ended at the finish line with that reputation. It’s horrific how whole cities can lose their identities and life from job loss. Like Detroit, massive layoffs of white and blue collar jobs in the auto industry thanks to its slump and bailouts, Oshawa became known as a vacant city on welfare. Some bleeding heart decided to revitalize the downtown core with drug programs, safe injection sites and rooming houses, making it a home run for drugdealers, panhandlers and prostitutes. Businesses slumped and boarded up stores were plastered in grafitti, used condoms and needles between the remaining diners and dives. Even the beloved Tim Hortons coffee shop closed after requiring police assistance on average of 170 times per year. It’s one of few Canadian cities where the transition from middle class to vagrant is only a street light away. The core is going through yet another transition as deal makers take advantage of one of the last reasonable real estate markets in the Greater Toronto Area.
Sam McLaughlin, an Irish immigrant, was one of the first manufacturers of automobiles in Canada. He built his empire and home in Oshawa. He started the McLaughlin Motor Car Company in 1907 with his brother, George, and father, Robert Senior. They accepted a business deal from the the giant General Motors Corporation and merged with Chevrolet Motor Car Co. of Canada to form General Motors of Canada Ltd. Since then, Oshawa has been the Canadian home to GM with a car manufacturing plant whose productivity goes up and down with the markets. Mostly down the last few decades with a few cars still limping off the assembly line.
The hospital and its neighbours live in the most beautifully groomed neighbourhood in the city, but I had never had the occasion to stop there before my cancer journey. It was a place to drive through, on my way to the (revitalized) shopping mall, the blues & jazz bars and back to a date’s apartment after refusing to welcome an old boyfriend back to the pack … but that is another story. Big, stately, old trees graced the sides of the perfectly manicured lawns. Bright, happy shrubs burst with colourful flowers like peonies, hydrangea and roses, smiling from the sides of walkways and porches beyond the grass. Parkwood Estate, just south of the hospital, is a peaceful lunchtime stroll through lush fountains, pillar stair cases and well-kept gardens. It was once home to the late Sam McLaughlin, whose family took wedding photos on the elegant staircases, threw bowling and pool parties, then Sam invited the allied wartime spies housed at Camp X to come enjoy his home facilities like it was a health club. Camp X’s colourful and decorated history has only been public knowledge the last few decades as it was a paramilitary training centre for the RCMP and Britain’s MI-6. The US also sent secret service agents for training.
The McLaughlin Art Gallery is a wonderful space full of local talent. One Friday every month, you can purchase a glass of wine and sip your way through the exhibits free of charge. The construction boom and revitalized North Oshawa around the University is now known as Poshawa. I hope the city makes a full comeback.
Things aren’t always as they seem. Or, perhaps, multiple states can coexist. The good, the bad and the ugly. The duality of life intrigues me, and more than once I have compared feeling like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat – neither dead nor alive – during chemotherapy.
By the time my treatment was done – eight months of tests, chemo, seven or eight trips to emerg, two hospitalizations, and radiation – I was an expert in the floor plan and neighbouring streets. I’ve run like a lab rat through every wing, can tell you the shortcuts, which labs live in the bowels of the hospital and what elevators are the fastest near the cafeteria area. I’ve done laps around layout of the wards, having been warehoused in two. I know where the parking office is, the administration and records office and where to find wheelchairs which haven’t been peed on. I know how the height restriction on both the south and north parking lots. And, of course, I know every inch of the C Wing – the Cancer Centre – like the back of my hand.
Several weeks earlier, I had a scheduled mammogram which needed to get done before I saw Dr. F*. As the date for the test got closer, I frothed myself into a frenzy. My breast morphed in front of my very eyes like a monster, reddening, bulging, its grotesquely misshapen self haunting me as the appointment loomed before me. I am still not sure if I really noticed changes or if my eyes were playing tricks on me. Cancer treatment and its aftermath does strange things to your brain.
The anxious OMG-the-sky-is-falling Lisa overpowered the level-headed-and-sane Lisa, beating her back into oblivion. I calmly tried to talk myself through the storm with that monster on my back.
“It’s nothing,” said bravery.
“It’s cancer again…” rasped the darkly insideous voice of fear. “You know you have a 20 percent chance of a reoccurance before two years. Not good odds!”
“It’s not!” I cried.
“Look at it … it’s puckered. The skin looks like citrus rind. It’s red!” fretted anxiety.
“It’s something …” acknowledged logic.
“But WHAT!?” yelled uncertainty.
“Better check it out!” nagged doubt.
I was completely worked up by the time I arrived for my mammogram and my agitated state was noticed by my technician. My previous mammogram and ultrasound were done in Toronto, preventing her from accessing the files. I informed her that I couldn’t wait the 10 days for the first available appointment after I got the requisition form from Dr. M* my GP last year, so I had headed into the city. The technician looked alarmed at my journey and informed me that they have to see me within 24 hours if there is a noticable problem. Duly noted, passed on to my GP and friends.
You need a cancer guide to navigate the world of cancer.
She told me to wait and would schedule an ultrasound immediately after so they could look deeper into my fears. I thanked her, almost in tears, grateful that someone didn’t think Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt were Nuts. I was almost ready to huddle in the corner alone to cry, certain that something was lurking.
While the ultrasound technician left the room to ensure she had everything needed, I looked at my scans and played the black and white game. If a big wad of cancer was black on the last scan, what is this white dot in the middle of an oval black blob?
I posted a photo of the scan in my cancer group and someone piped up with a benign diagnosis. Since I couldn’t wait the weeks to see my oncologist, I went in to see my GP to get the results.
The fluid sac seen in my early post-surgery scans – and subsequently drained while I was admitted for infection – was still visible, but that was all it was. A seroma. I had tipped the scales at a bi-rad rating of five the last time, but this one was two.
I was much calmer when I finally saw Dr. F. She was an hour and a half late for our appointment, but I know she spends time with her patients, so I calmly sipped coffee and read Kindle books on my phone.
I didn’t really feel like a cancer patient any longer, although I still have my patient portal online and my cancer centre card for easy arrival confirmations. I desperately wanted to hug all the patients and tell them it doesn’t have to be a death sentence, but I don’t know their stories. It could be.
Dr. F remembered me and Heather so we chatted for a few minutes before getting into the breast check and tests.
“They want you to go back in for an ultrasound in three months. Did they tell you that?”
“We will book it for July in time for your surgery.” I’m having reconstruction done later this year.
And we were done. My anxiety was beaten back into the corner and left to sleep on the edges of my brain for another month.
And such is the life of a cancer patient. Scans terrorize us so much that it has it’s own term – scanxiety – a play on scan and anxiety. Because we have already had one death sentence, we wait for the other. While I work with a therapist to gain strength and live in the present, I still can’t help slipping into “What if?”…
But I had better things to do that day. I had to head north to see a certain young lady dance in her dance recital while I did my best to weave hair into buns, brighten lips with lipstick and frantially fix knotted shoe laces.
Life goes on. As my friend John likes to says … “Pitter patter.” Much better a noise for my feet than my heart.
Live well & live present,
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