I recently returned from a trip to Winnipeg, Manitoba, with my Dad. It certainly wasn’t a vacation by any stretch – but it was an opportunity to experience something with him that we hadn’t in years. It was quality time, under circumstances that are not ideal. My dad was diagnosed with stage one cancer this past year: below is a brief account of what one week together was like.
Wednesday, September 18
Dad and I arrived in Winnipeg on Monday, roughly around 10:30am. Coming here I’m sure neither of us was looking forward to it; he especially, for not knowing what this experience was going to be like physically, mentally, emotionally. Radiation is no friend, its not an easy thing to face, and it took Dad a lot leading up to this trip to get where he is now.
In addition to not fully understanding what is involved in the radiation process, I was also unsure how it would be to spend week one with him because it had literally been over 15 years since we’d spent more than a couple of hours alone together. I was questioning, what would it be like? Would either of us be able to handle ‘it‘?
Day three into it, its been an adventure for sure, yet I feel like we’re blessed. I find myself thinking: cancer has somehow brought us closer. Is that strange? Or is it common?
DAY ONE was all about orientating ourselves in the neighbourhood of ‘A Port In The Storm‘, located in the predominantly french community of St. Boniface. First off, we got the address wrong. After landing in the air port, our taxi driver took us to our destination, which according to the google search – was 441 Aulneau St. Wrong. Dad stayed in the cab while I hesitantly got out at 441 Aulneau St. to suss out the situation. Why? Because it was a very sketchy looking house, rather than the type of medical establishment I had pictured on the flight over.. I tapped on the front door thinking “I didn’t know we’d be staying in a boarding room…somethings not right.“, only to have a shirtless guy answer the door, looking gruff and wondering who the fuck I was. Needless to say – I knew we weren’t where we were supposed to be.
Further research on the ‘A Port In The Storm‘ (PITS) website indicated that it was located at 601 Aulneau – the 441 was simply the office suite. There you go. PITS provides cancer care lodging services for out-of-towers, such as Dad. The room is clean and spacious, with a spare room for me to sleep in, and Dad equipped with a T.V., fridge, couch, a big bathroom and staff who have been extremely helpful to us as we settle in. Plus, Cecile and Marion, supervisors of the program, were welcoming and informative about the premises and services available to us.
I could tell that Dad felt a bit easier once he saw the digs and knew we’d be in a nice neighbourhood – heck it was worlds beyond nicer than his own Flin Flon home! We also learned that there was a cafeteria and had our first supper there: chicken, lamb, vegetables, coffee and desert ($10 each). Dad found it humorously awkward the first time because we were surrounded in a sea of elderly people, with him joking “I feel like a kid!“. It was a bit strange, but this was before we knew that there were going to be more people we’d be acquainted with.
But before we had headed to dinner I found the local Food Mart, about a 20 minute walk away front the grounds. We had a nice leisurely walk, enjoying the sun and feeling like we were making strides into the beginnings of this 6 week adventure for him. A stop at the Salvation Army and grocery store later, and we headed back with an assortment of food and essentials for our little pad.
I think we both went to bed that night feeling tired and relieved; after all, the environment was no longer a mystery – and we knew that the next day was going to be a bit more stressful; what with it being Day 1 of radiation therapy.
DAY TWO began early: Dad and I got up around 7am and preparing for his 11:30 apt at Cancer Care Manitoba; I wanted to ensure we had a good meal and that dad had ample time to drink coffee and have his smokes before we took our cab there and orientated ourselves with the situation.
I could tell he was nervous leading up to it – slightly cranky and short tempered; after all, it had to be overwhelming thinking of what was in store. Radiation is an overwhelming process, which neither one of us were experts on. We took our cab there, arriving with ample time to figure out where the radiation centre was located. The clerk gave us Dad’s radiation schedule for the week, noting that on Thursday he’d be facing two treatments in one day, spaced 6 hours apart. It wasn’t ideal but it was going to have to be. Dad got in his scrubs and we waited for the first radiation treatment; I must admit my heart was beating at the sight of him in the waiting room; he looked small and fragile in oversize blue scrubs, and in amongst all the other waiting patients I could see in his eyes he was taking all of it in, yet I couldn’t know for sure what he was thinking about it. I gave him some water and we chatted about lighter topics until it was his turn.
Less than 15 minutes later he was out; we got him changed back in his clothes and headed over to our orientation helper Jana. Jana sat us down and gave us the real low down on what to expect as far as the difficulties Dad was going to face as treatments progressed; the biggest being a difficulty in swallowing due to skin reactions to radiation on his throat. Dad is also going to have to prepare for fatigue, swelling, inflammation and hoarseness; she gave tips on how to manage it and care for himself. I was listening intently; and admit that it was difficult to process entirely. There’s no way around it: radiation is not going to be a walk in the park. I also think there’s enough information to help us all come together and help the process be as comfortable as we can.
Then it was upstairs for the first of weekly required blood work at the clinic (which occur every Monday) and to the Volunteer Drivers Program, where they’d help set us up with regular transportation to and from the Cancer Care Centre every day. Dad took a particular shine to Kelly, the woman in charge of registering him for the drivers program: she was flirty, feisty, full of jokes and wearing a skirt, which had Dad going on at length for the next couple of days. “Oh that Kelly girl, isn’t she something?“
“Yes Dad. She’s something.“
Kelly was bright and cheery, and she made Dad smile and feel good so I appreciated all she did to explain how the program works. Essentially a volunteer would pick us up and drop us off for all of his appointments – costing $13 a day, round trip – they are usually people with experience in dealing with cancer treatment themselves, personally or with a family member. They are friendly and work very hard to transport everyone in a timely way. They are quite amazing.
By then we were starved, having realized we’d barely eaten. There’s a great street meat vendor outside the Cancer Care Centre where we decided to stop and inhale some sustenance and give him even more time to have a smoke break. Dad likes his smoke breaks and you learn not to rush him but rather to give him all the time he needs. It’s not asking for a lot.
After all of this, we returned to PITS via the transport service and relaxed before getting our tickets for dinner in the cafeteria. Dad was really tired after the first full day, and he did say that his throat was a little sore; reporting that the face cover he has to wear during the radiation procedure itself, fits mostly ok other than the part that presses his lump down on the left side of his jaw. He also reported having a bit of a headache, which I tried to explain was in large part because he drinks far too much coffee and not nearly enough water; but Dad loves his coffee so I’m not sure he wanted to hear that his headache and fatigued could be at all linked to dehydration.
I took a walk to the grocery store again and picked up some extra’s for Dad, including some Boost, and apple juice, which they recommended would be good for his health; you have to do all you can right?
Best part of day two was when Dad and I took a leisurely walk through our neighbourhood; not only was it good for us to be up and mobile, but it also gave us a chance to talk about things other than treatment. This walk is one of my fonder memories, strolling along the scenic streets and stopping now and then to take pics of Dad by statues of Louis Riel. I had moments where I was thinking it felt surreal to be in the city with him, who rarely strayed far from his Belview home perched up on the rocks.
We ended the night both just watching some T.V. and winding down early. I could hear the T.V. faintly as I closed my eyes in my room and drifted off to sleep.
DAY THREE I woke up and Dad wasn’t home; but I knew he’d be outside having a cigarette or two; only to return an hour to tell me he had a project to work on. Turns out our neighbours across the hall, the Klassen family from Brandon, Manitoba whom we’d met only briefly in passing, had Dad in on helping put together a bed in one of the empty rooms upstairs. That’s Dad for you though, likes to feel useful.
I took that time to explore the neighbourhood and went to a coffee shop and art gallery, by noon Dad and I reconnected and took another trip to the grocery to buy some eggs, milk and sandwich meat. Marion, the director, had left a hot plate for us to use which meant we could go beyond using the microwave to cook, now we could boil soup and fry up some eggs in the morning.
At around 2:00 we were outside and ready for our transport pick up; which turned out to be small-world experience; our driver, a woman named Judy, had grown up in Ethelbert, Saskatchewan, where Dad’s own father had grown up. Judy remembered the Trubiak name and even recalled that her school bus driver was a Trubiak, in fact it was Dad’s uncle! They were talking away in the front together while I got to know another cancer patient, an elderly woman named Shirley, who was also staying at PITS. Shirley was from Dauphin and was on week Three of radiation; she was a sweet lady.
Once we finally arrived at Cancer Care, Dad pretty much went directly into his radiation session, and this time we both felt more familiar with the process; in no time at all we were back up in the volunteer transport waiting room arranging our return ride to PITS.
Evening three of dinner was a real treat; the Klassen family joined us at our table, along with Claude, a gentle man who’s been fighting leukaemia for at least 11 months. Everyone was talking and enjoying the meal; we had a real good chance to hear more about their experiences. Essentially John and his family, use a truly inspirational group of people, landed at PITS and have been getting through each day much like Dad and I found ourselves doing. John is a warrior; he told us about getting ready to start receiving full body radiation on top of back to back chemotherapy, and stem cell surgery, with a bone marrow transplant from his older brother. John’s story really has touched me; his wife and son Bryce are devoted to staying by his side, despite the upheaval its brought. I felt blessed to be in their presence.
I watched Dad interacting with them, as they were so open and friendly with us, and it was clear Dad was impressed and touched by John’s will to fight. It had me thinking that Dad really needed to meet them, if anything to put his own situation into perspective so that he could see how cancer affects a lot of different families on so many levels. Dad had them laughing with his conversation and he opened up about his own treatment. It made me proud of him and I could sense that being around them was good for his outlook.
The evening continued along like this, with Dad having a smoke break outside with Bryce and Claude, another cancer patient on our floor. Claude has struggled with leukaemia for 11 months, enduring a list of procedures and treatments like radiation, chemotherapy, blood transfusions – that had both Dad and my head spinning. Again, Dad was impressed by his will, even though Claude admitted he was getting tired of being at PITS, after 11 long months of the same routine. Claude talked about wishing he could be back at work, earning a wage and being with his wife. The three of us walked to the convenience store so Dad could pick up cigarettes and Claude could get his ginger ale. I enjoyed hearing them talk together because again, Dad was being open, and i could tell he appreciated this conversation.
I spent a couple of hours talking with Kim in the lounge; with her opening up about their families struggle to adapt to all the changes that literally turned their lives upside down. She asked me about Dad and told me how funny he was and that her son Bryce really enjoyed him. I felt proud of Dad and appreciated having someone to talk to; I realized that I hadn’t really opened up to anyone about what its been like. We talked about art and creative stuff like her work and what I enjoy doing in my spare time in Flin Flon. She said she’d like to chat again before I had to leave.
Dad and I both agreed that all in all it was a great day and night here; its funny that we both feel so relaxed and at home here; thanks in large part to the community of people here to connect with. I go to bed knowing that Dad is struggling with a bit of a sore throat from the two treatments, but that despite what’s ahead, he’s in good hands here and is certainly not alone.
DAY FOUR started off fairly early; with us getting up at around 6:45 am. It was to be a busier day, what with dad having to have two radiation sessions; one at 9:30 am and the other six hours later at 3:45. Not to mention a doctors consultation to see how he’s feeling up to now. I can see it’s already beginning to take a toll on Dad, as it should – these four radiation sessions alone; he talks about his throat feeling a little sore, and contending with a headache for most of the day. Although I will say he’s been eating healthy consistently, what with the meals they serve here and all the good groceries we have. He sure would be best to cut out the coffee and add more water intake….
I can sense that he’s looking forward to heading back home for the weekend – as am I. It comes out in the things he says in relation to John and Claude, who have been here considerably longer than he has, and who have also had a tougher battle to face in terms of their treatment plans. I sense he feels for them – and I can also tell he’s becoming a bit more irritable at times, i.e., short tempered, moody – its not severe but there are moments. To his credit he has been so flexible and his world has literally been turned upside down with all of these appointments, sessions, consults and so forth. It only makes sense – yet somehow we’ve been able to make it work together; its required patience on both our parts.
DAY FIVE is now here… its a strangely emotional day for me in a lot of ways. It marks the end of this first week experience with Dad, as well as my time at PITS and all of our new friends. Dad and I were up very early so we could get to his final radiation apt of the week, which was at 8:45 am. He is noticeably fatigued and operating at a slower pace. He refers to feeling headachy and ‘not with it’. I know his throat has been sore and perhaps the week of treatments has taken a mental as well as physical and emotional toll on him. After all, prior to this week we had no idea what any of this would look and feel like, and he has made me proud with the amount of courage he has in facing each step of the process, connecting with people around here such as the Klassens and the staff.
Since returning from that apt he has laid low here, taking a nap while I spent some time with Kim and her son. They took me with them to do some creative work; photographing me playing my guitar outside and in the Exchange District. It’s been a real highlight to spend time with them, and they really seem to appreciate having met Dad and me. I admit I am grateful myself, and their support during this week has been above and beyond, for both Dad and I.
Soon Kim and Bryce will actually drive me and dad to the airport… Its going to feel strange once I get home and am once again distanced from the PITS world..
My emotions are all over the place; I feel a multitude of things. On the top of my head, I feel a guilt that I will not be here for Dad over the next few weeks, and furthermore my guilt comes from not knowing just what lies ahead in terms of how treatment go. I feel as though I’m abandoning him despite that Ebony and Rob will also be here with him – I feel like I’ll be missing out on his full journey and it makes me sad… I want my Dad to know how much I love him and would do anything for him, even if it meant staying the full six weeks and enduring every step with him.
It also feels strange being away from the others in the PITS community; knowing they will also be continuing on in their own journey’s; I wish them all the best and hope they know how admirable they are to me and my Dad.
That’s all – I should sign off now and get ready to head to the airport – CC
*** Thanks for listening.