Dave Watson, the Straight’s AWOL Dot Comment man, circles the drain with a crafty tumour, his liver, and his ladylove, and stays afloat.
Hey there, anyone remember me? Whatever happened to me, anyway? Dave Watson? Geeky guy, not too tall, probably best known around Vancouver for having spent an enviable 23 years as a writer for the Georgia Straight, surely one of the best possible jobs I could ever have. It sure seemed like I was around town for ages, mostly covering technology in recent years, although over time in the newspaper trade you can get the opportunity to write about all kinds of subjects. That’s what makes it interesting as a career. And then I up and vanish at the end of summer in 2007. Poof. Just like that, without even leaving a note. A bit inconsiderate, I suppose, but I had reasons.
Naturally, leaving an abrupt information gap like that causes problems. Some readers were even motivated enough to phone in or send an e-mail, which is very gratifying. It’s nice to know your work is appreciated and missed. However, contacting the Straight probably didn’t provide much help, as they have been kind enough to maintain my privacy. So, no, I didn’t get fired, retire, or run off to join some lesser publication. None of those things happened to me.
Instead, at age 44 I was diagnosed with cancer. And not one of the minor ones or some kind of early warning but a full-on Stage IV. That’s when an existing tumour has not only spread into another part of the body (metastasized) but has become well-established in multiple locations inside its new home. In my case, it turns out that a crafty colorectal tumour managed to avoid detection long enough to also take my liver condo. In fact, when I was initially admitted to hospital, it was pretty much assumed I was circling the drain rather rapidly. My liver was swollen like I was shoplifting a pair of footballs, each solid as a rock. My rank on the bilirubin scale (a test of liver function) was higher than 160. What’s a good score? Oh, about 18 or less.
I’m happy to say that my bilirubin ranking finally reached the normal range in late February, after months of gradual recovery that included chemotherapy, careful eating, traditional Chinese medicine, breathing exercises, painkillers, dramatic weight loss, growing a beard packed full of scraggly grey hairs, extreme bouts of itchiness, and impromptu mood swings. And those were the highlights of the experience. It doesn’t rescue me from cancer in the longer term—it’s just that day-to-day life is much easier with a properly working liver, with or without cancer.
Where were we? Oh, yeah, jaundiced and hospitalized. I spent almost three weeks of October in hospital, which all began with a visit to a new family doctor. Almost as soon as he saw me shuffle into his office (I had spent much of August and September with unexplained back pain), the doctor sent me directly to the hospital to get tests done—and told me to wait there for him afterwards. I was admitted and the medical information began to flow. I never got one of those formal pronouncements like you see on TV doctor shows, with half a room full of people with clipboards or you and the doctor playing it solo under dramatic lighting, but the message was still pretty clear within a short period of time.
Even though I was quite foggy for much of that time (between the various pharmaceuticals, impaired liver function, and just plain old shock at how my life just changed), one of the moments that stands out was at the tail end of that process. My parents came into town (I moved away from Vancouver a couple of years back) and we met with the cancer specialist, who said that the main medical focus would be to “preserve Mr. Watson’s quality of life”. This wasn’t really a surprise to me by then, but it’s the effect on my dad that I remember. He just kind of deflated, like he’d been slammed in the guts. It was a horrible moment, actually, seeing that impact, although for some reason it’s become my touchstone for last fall, when I had to contact quite a few people and give them bad news. I had a lot of visitors.
Near the end of that hospital month I was transferred to the B.C. Cancer Agency for a session of chemotherapy that meant spending about 55 hours attached to an IV stand that was pumping in various liquids. True, I was somewhat mobile, but the pumps on the stand are electrically powered and had old, weak batteries, so I could only get away from plugging into a wall somewhere for a few minutes at a time or be subjected to unpleasantly loud electronic beeping as the low-power alarm sounded.
I didn’t display much response to the medication, and, shortly after returning to my home hospital, I was released back into the wild, but with an uncertain future. I’d lost about 15 kilograms, done lots of throwing up, and had limited energy reserves, so it looked like I’d be going down the drain soon. However, I was still around during the second week of November, and that’s when the cancer specialist noticed my overall health had been improving steadily, along with my energy, so regular chemo sessions were scheduled. It’d still take about 50 hours every two weeks, but I wouldn’t have to stay in the hospital. Instead, I’d go in and get a device (a hard rubber balloon filled with drugs protected inside something like a baby bottle) that would drip fluids into me at the appropriate rate until empty.
And that’s where things stand—or stood—as of the end of February. At least temporarily, I reached a level of comparatively good health and eventually struck a balance where most of the side effects of treatment (such as nausea) were minimized or even stopped. I’ve been trying to use the time wisely, reconnecting with people and trying to wrap up loose ends. I even got married—finally—about 13 years into a wonderful, supportive relationship with a woman who is probably the main reason I even lived out the autumn, much less got near to spring.