Ian Robinson had none of the traditional symptoms of prostate cancer but in 2016, after being shuffled between different doctors and specialists for a sore shoulder that turned out to be a broken neck, he was shocked when he was told the signs pointed to him having cancer.
“It was that moment when they tell you ‘you’ve got cancer,’ when time basically stopped. I could see his mouth moving and couldn’t hear a word that he was saying. I was trying to force myself to think and I couldn’t.”
As Ian waited by himself in the consulting room, he happened to overhear his specialist outside the hall, “I heard him saying my name and then I heard him say ‘stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer.’ I didn’t catch the whole sentence but I caught those two things and at that moment, I felt very afraid, lonely and angry – it folded me in half basically. I thought ‘I’m going to die.’”
The magnitude of what this diagnosis meant hit Ian immediately. At that moment, he also thought about his 19-year-old son, Jake, who was waiting for him outside. “I thought ‘I can do one last thing for him.’ Which was to die well and bravely and that can be the last example I set for him. I don’t know how to do it well but I’m going to have to learn. And I think that has carried me through a great deal.”
About a week later, Ian visited the Tom Baker Cancer Centre to meet his oncologist for the first time. At this point, his cancer had metastasized, spreading from his prostate to his spine and neck making it difficult for him to walk. One of the most remarkable parts of his journey was meeting his oncologist, “I was in a wheelchair, she came in, she sat down on the stool and scooched over so our knees were touching – me in my wheelchair, and her on her stool with her lab coat, her stethoscope and these large compassionate brown eyes and she took my hands in hers and she said what to me were the absolute perfect words to hear at that moment which was, ‘This really sucks, it is awful and I feel just terrible for you, but here’s what I can do for you.’ And then she started outlining my treatment and what I could expect.”
After meeting his oncologist, all of Ian’s fears dissipated. She had pledged to him that she will do her job and will be with him till the very end. And he hasn’t been afraid since “It was a remarkable spiritual transformation. I was broken when I rolled into her office, and when I rolled out, I was not.”
Ian and his oncologist made a deal, that she would do her best to take care of him and he would do his best to make the most out of the time he has left. With treatment, Ian had about three years to live. Given that he had mere weeks if untreated, Ian feels very fortunate for the time he was given, “There are people who are not so lucky. I had a friend who lived 3 months between diagnosis with stomach cancer and death. I am very fortunate. I was given a gift so that I could make peace with the people around me.”
Being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer can be terrifying. When asked how Ian copes with the day to day challenges of his diagnosis and how he chooses not to be crippled by it, he attributes it to having a supportive network of friends and family, a spiritual practice and above all, practising gratitude every day.
Ian feels blessed for the tremendous support of his family during his cancer journey, “My wife, Kathleen has been a real rock. I’m not the efficient one so it’s good to have somebody really smart on Team Ian. She keeps my meds organized for me and that’s no small thing given the number of pills I pop every day just to keep alive. And, particularly when it was early days, she made sure I turned up for blood work and scans and all the stuff that eats up the life of a cancer patient.”
At the time of his diagnosis, Jake had taken a gap year and it was the beginning of his final summer off before he started his undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary. “I’ve had a lot of really beautiful moments but one of the most beautiful moments was the day I was diagnosed with cancer. My son and I are sitting in the living room and looking at each other and he says ‘wow this really sucks’ and I said ‘you know, in all the movies and books I’ve read what’s supposed to happen now is because I have a fatal illness you’re supposed to unload all the things about me that have upset you over the years. We’re supposed to have this long talk and then reconcile’ and he looked at me and said ‘I got nothing, you were a great dad.’”
After Ian was diagnosed, Jake stepped up. “He said to my wife ‘I know you’re going to want to go to his oncology appointments with him. But as for chemo, scans and everything else, I’ve got it. I will make sure he eats, I will hang out with him when you’re not around. I’ve got it.’ He was the backbone of the family over the summer, he was our ironman, and he was the one that everyone leaned on. At 19 years old and saying ‘no, I’ve got this. I will carry this burden for you’, it’s one of the greatest gifts you can have as a parent. He kept me distracted for chemo, he sacrificed his summer and never indicated any resentment, anger or felt sorry for himself. To see that I have raised such great kids and to see how he stepped up was probably one of the greatest moments for me. It’s almost like it’s ok for me to die because he’s going to be fine. He’s a great man.”
Though the disease has left Ian vastly diminished physically, he finds ways to keep himself busy and tries to make a difference in the lives of the people around him. “It gave me a broken neck and brittle bones and I can’t run or jump or hike on mountains or do any of the fun stuff I liked to do but on the other hand, I’m still kicking and I have found other ways to keep myself busy and happy.” One of the ways he does this is by taking part in the programs at Wellspring, Calgary, a community program that provides a comprehensive range of support, resources and programs to cancer patients and their caregivers. “Half of the time, at Wellspring, the word cancer is not even uttered when we’re all together. Nobody talks about it or thinks about it. We’re all just propping each other up and when one of us stumbles there’s always somebody to catch them. To a great extent Wellspring for me has given back what cancer steals. To be a part of that organization – which never would have happened to me if I didn’t have cancer – has been a great and unexpected joy in my life.” The Alberta Cancer Foundation has recently partnered with Wellspring to provide support and resources to cancer patients in rural Alberta.
Cancer has given Ian a rather heightened sense of what’s important. He chooses to live each day to the fullest and to the best of his abilities and starts each day by reading poetry and texts from Marcus Aurelius’s ‘Meditation’ and the Old Testament text Ecclesiastes . He also lists things he is grateful for. “It’s important to have a spiritual practice that allows you to contemplate your death as part of a natural process, and it’s also important to make a list of the things you are grateful for because the minute I do that it’s almost like I can’t be miserable. It’s as though the gratitude banishes the misery from my life.” He thinks about what gave him pleasure yesterday, and what’s going to make him happy today. A marriage that has hung on for decades. Good kids. He won’t be going hungry. His pain is controlled and he is exceeding expectations medically.
“So it would seem churlish and ungrateful to allow my life to be contaminated by my sorrow at this point. I mourned who I was and I mourned what was not going to be. And then I got on with it because that’s what you do,” says Ian.
Ian remembers practicing gratitude on a particularly bad day during his cancer treatment. After undergoing his sixth round of chemotherapy, he felt emotionally drained and it affected him mentally in a way that the previous rounds hadn’t “It was like they poured liquid doom into my veins and I was just really sad, miserable and unhappy.” But on that day, he forced himself to think of something to be grateful for. He thought about how grateful he was for the person who invented chemo. “Whoever came up with this, I hate them and want to punch them in the face but I also want to hug them because I am only feeling this bad so that I can feel better later. “
Ian is beyond grateful for the compassionate care he receives from his oncologist and care team at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre.
“I never knew an institution could be loving until I got to the Tom Baker Cancer Centre. My experience there was remarkable. Nobody forgot their mission, which was to take care of people with cancer. I’d be hobbling on my cane or in my wheelchair trying to get to the bathroom and a janitor would see me from down the hall and run down to help me. Everybody spoke kindly, calmly and helpfully to me. From the expert technicians to the people who put me in the MRI to the chemo nurses, they were heroes.”
The Alberta Cancer Foundation works towards pushing the pace of progress that leads to faster diagnosis, groundbreaking research and leading-edge treatments for Albertans facing cancer. Aside from treatments, providing cancer patients with the best possible quality of life so they can make the best of those moments with their loved ones, is just as important. Ian recognizes the difference donor dollars have made in cancer research and in helping him create more moments with his family. For example, he says, that it was only recently that they discovered that for prostate cancer patients like Ian if you add six rounds of chemotherapy along with Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT), it gives patients an average 18 months more. Ian knows he has those extra 18 months because of the money spent on research. And as his doctor said, there is always something coming down the pipeline. By the time his cancer grows, there might be something new to treat it. “It’s a game of inches,” says Ian.
“It’s tough and it’s hard and awful but you know what, if you can give 100 people one more year of life each, you have created a century of life that wasn’t there before. And that matters. The addition of 18 months for someone like me – how many times in 18 months do you get to hold your wife’s hand? How many times in 18 months do you get to kiss your children? How many times over 18 months do you get to sit at a table filled with food and toast your friends and sip wine? It matters and by giving money to cancer research, it’s giving me the life to act in the world with love and intention, to be a good person and make the people around me happy, and make myself happy. The donations do not just disappear, there are real-life results. For the money you give, there is someone who doesn’t have to bury their husband or wife this year. It makes a difference, I am sitting here – I have no pain, I am perfectly happy and none of this would have happened 15 years ago. I would not be here today.”