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In December 2012, Dr. Joseph Madden known for his kind gentle nature as a pediatrician, found himself facing one of the biggest challenges of his life. What began as stomach pains ended up being a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
My battle with cancer began innocently enough one day in late 2012, while at work I had a dull tummy ache that would not go away. I went to the Emergency Department. Dr. Rivet pushed on my belly and a hernia from an old surgery went back in. The pain was gone – “Great, I though, and I went back to work.”
Dr. Rivet ordered a CT scan beforehand because I had a previous major surgery. “You might as well have the CT – the porter is here.” Ten minutes later Dr. Rivet said, “You are full of lymph nodes, big nodes. You have lymphoma.” I said, “How can this be, I feel fine.”
Additional testing was done including a lymph node biopsy and bone marrow testing. Initially it didn’t sink in as I had no symptoms. I continued to perform my duties at work. Sure enough, 13 days later my diagnosis was confirmed–Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
What to do? First, discuss it with the Commander and Chief –my wife Mary. Always practical, we do what most people do with a cancer diagnosis, take it one day at a time.
There was so much to do before I started my chemotherapy treatment.
I had to tell my children: Rachel, married in Illinois with our two grandchildren; Peter in Belgium; Lynne in South Hampton England; Ruth away at College in Chicago; Patrick in college in Halifax; Keeva in Medical School in Ireland; Finbarr at Ottawa University; and my six brothers between Europe and Canada. Many relatives and friends to contact.
They all needed time and had many questions and concerns. Herein is the joy of being in a family when you need them.
I told them, ‘I am feeling fine and the doctors say the outlook is good. I am not worrying.’ My request to my children was don’t look it up online. Ask me your questions. Don’t worry unduly.
I had to take a leave from work, transfer my responsibilities as Chief of Staff at the hospital, and my workload and patient care to my good colleagues with very short notice. My practice of 26 years was quite large. I also had to cancel my out of town clinic. This was a huge burden for my colleagues. Their compassion and generosity was more than I could wish for.
Within a week of my diagnosis I was off to our Regional Cancer Centre in Sudbury to meet my oncologist and his staff. The plan of care was made- six rounds of chemotherapy drug treatments and it should get me into remission.
First came a central line in a central vein for all of my drug treatments (PICC line). I loved my line “My Best Buddy” as it saved so many needle pokes.
Just before Christmas in 2012, I started my chemotherapy treatments at NBRHC. The staff were present, supportive and responsive. The drugs to prevent side effects such as vomiting worked well. Medication helped me get a good night’s sleep which was very important so that I could face the next day of treatment. Mary was always present to support me and communicate with our family.
Christmas day 2012 was not a good day for me. I had finished my first round of treatment and was at home for a few days. It was then that it really hit me for the first time. I felt I was in a very dark place. I became somewhat paranoid and irritable. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. A visitor had to leave. I hid in my room. I did not know what I wanted. This passed in a few hours but it was a tough week. Slowly I emerged from my dark thoughts. Being alone with a cancer diagnosis does not work.
I completed the six rounds of treatment and found each round a little easier. Three months later I was in remission and was able to return to work.
Just one month later, I discovered I was not on the home stretch after all. I noticed a lump in my neck. I ignored it for a week or two and then bit the bullet and went for a biopsy. I thought, ‘Is this it? Do I need to plan an exit strategy?’ My family was worried. They knew the grave meaning of the recurrence.
The biopsy confirmed I was having a relapse. The outlook for remission went from the original 95 percent to 60 percent.
I returned to receive more intensive chemotherapy in Sudbury and at our chemotherapy unit at North Bay Regional Health Centre.
The staff were wonderful. They knew their stuff. I would come for several hours, they would ‘hook me up’ and I would sit back and relax. The chat was good – very important, with lots of tea and snacks. Physicians, nurses, pharmacy, and administrative staff all did their part. It eased my journey.
They ‘did it again’. For a second time I went into remission and was therefore eligible for a stem cell transplant in Ottawa.
Throughout my course of three years of treatments, my friends, colleagues, hospital pediatric and NICU and Labour/Delivery staff, administrative and many other staff wished me well, provided support and comfort in many little ways. I really felt valued. It gave me courage to carry on and kept my spirits up.
At the Stem Cell transplant unit at the Ottawa General Hospital, they harvested my stem cells from my blood. This took hours of being connected to a special blood machine like a dialysis machine that filtered my blood of stem cells and then returned the filtered blood back to me. Then I was radiated from head to toe, which along with the drugs, wiped out my old bone marrow. Then they gave me back my stem cells. Two weeks later my stem cells had produced new blood cells.
After two months of living in Ottawa to be close to the Hospital, I returned home.
‘Home’ is the best place to be.
Alas, six months later I felt a lump in my armpit. The cancer was back and I was given a 40 percent chance of remission. I thought this is ‘it’ this time. I wondered, will I make it to Christmas? Family members started to visit me. I started making plans. I revised my Will.
Personal journeys with cancer will happen to too many of us in our lives. For the next several generations the need will be high. We need strong cancer screening and treatment close to home. When you hear you have cancer you need not fear.
The expertise and support is close by. We have wonderful staff to provide a strong system around you. They provide a feeling of confidence and trust that something can be done to help you. You are not alone.
I am grateful for the professionalism and knowledge of the cancer team here in North Bay, in Sudbury, and Ottawa. We have a unique integrated system that is there for us at the most stressful time of our lives. I had the support, kindness and patience of colleagues, friends, and family. The staff on pediatrics, NICU and Labour and Delivery played an especially important part in my recovery.
Since receiving my second stem cell transplant in May 2015 I haven’t looked back. I still have the honour and pleasure of working part time with my pediatric colleagues at the pediatric clinic.
In May 2018, my dream came true of completing the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. With my wife Mary and two of my children we completed the final 230 km walk. (The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.)
Hold onto your dreams. With a good team supporting you, you will see them through.