Matthew McDonald

Age at Diagnosis: 27

Current Age (at time of profile): 27

Hometown

St. John’s, NL (now living in Calgary, AB)

How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?

I was in Montreal at a recreation hockey camp with my father. In one of our games I collided with the goaltender and injured a couple of ribs. When I returned to Calgary my ribs didn’t seem to be healing so I went to see my family doctor who immediately sent me for x-rays and an ultrasound of my spleen because of the location of the trauma. The radiologist told me I had two broken ribs and ordered me to go to the emergency room for a CT scan to investigate my spleen. Turns out my spleen was fine, my ribs weren’t even broken, but they found a very enlarged lymph node in my abdomen, and several in my chest. After a core biopsy and a bone marrow biopsy I was diagnosed with lymphoma.

What year was it? What was your age at the time?

It was in October of 2008. I was 27 years old.

At what level of education were you at diagnosis?

I’m just completing my Masters of Science in Medicine, Community Health (I just submitted my thesis so wish me luck!)

Do you work? Yes, at the Alberta Cancer Board (ironically enough!)

What was your diagnosis?

I was diagnosed with Grade II, Stage 4A, Follicular Lymphoma.

What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?

Total and utter shock. I know it’s a clich, but I kept waiting to wake up from a terrible, terrible dream.

How did your family react?

My family still lives in St. John’s (my sister’s in Dublin), and I live in Calgary. My father immediately flew out to be with me throughout all of my diagnostic testing. My mother was in Ireland with my sister as she was due to have a baby that month. My father handled it like a champ and was a rock throughout all of my testing. I think my mother felt terribly that she couldn’t be with me throughout it, and I think this made it much more difficult on her. She wasn’t able to see how well I was doing, and wasn’t there to ask the doctors any questions, so I can imagine that would be much more difficult. My brother and my sister were obviously gravely concerned. I think it’s the feeling of helplessness that really hurt them. There’s nothing that anyone could do besides be there for me and offer any sort of support that they could. I can’t imagine being on their side of this issue, and often I think I have it easier than they do.

How did your friends react?

My friends showed their true colors. It made me realize which of my friends I can talk to and rely on in the most difficult times in my life. I certainly don’t rank them as friends or bad friends, just that some are better able to deal with a serious crisis than others. That said, I think some of them have a tough time approaching the situation, afraid that they will upset me, or make me talk about something I don’t want to address. It must be tough for them. They might really want to talk about it, and most of the time it’s not on the top of my list of party conversation pieces, so I think they avoid. Talking about the fact that I have cancer is not difficult for me and on many levels I find it therapeutic to openly discuss it. It’s also reassuring to know that people are genuinely interested in your health (or disease) and I take the fact that they will ask me questions as a sign that they really care about me. It’s only recently that some friends are starting to become more inquisitive and becoming more open with me. I guess it takes time for them to deal with it as well, and it’s not fair to them to make hasty judgments about their character.

What did your treatment consist of?

Medical Side: I’m in the common (common for Follicular Lymphoma) watchful waiting period for right now. This is a slow growing, slow spreading disease. I don’t have any symptoms at the moment, so the plan is to keep an eye on it, and if I start to get sick, or if it begins to spread then we will deal with it then. I’m told sometimes people go through their entire life and don’t need treatment and end up dying of a heart attack, or something unrelated. There is also the possibility that it may correct itself and go away on its own (this is the option I’m vying for!). The way I look at it is, this is one of the more common forms of non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, and therefore plenty of research is being done on it every year. If I can have several healthy years before I need treatment, you never know what the researchers will unveil by then. In the mean time I’ll keep my eye on my health, and try to beat this thing on my own!

In which hospital(s) were you treated?

I was diagnosed in Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary, AB. I’m seeing my hematologist at Peter Lougheed in Calgary.

What is your current medical status?

Currently feeling very healthy. Playing hockey, curling, and skiing as much as I possibly can.

How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?

My background is in kinesiology, so I’ve always tried to take good care of my body, and stay in pretty good physical condition. Since my diagnosis however, I’ve taken much more interest in my mental health. I began going to meditation sessions once per week, and made good use of the psychosocial resources at the Alberta Cancer Board. It has really helped me to deal with some of the stresses and intense emotions that come with a cancer diagnoses. I would highly recommend it to any one struggling on an emotional or mental level. Or even if you’re not struggling and just want to maintain!

What is/was the toughest part of your challenge?

Living with cancer inside my body. It’s an odd feeling to have something growing inside your body that could potentially kill you, and then not do anything about it. That is why I’m exploring as many alternatives to western medicine as I can. If I won’t be receiving medical treatment, I’m damn sure not going to sit around and wait to start getting it. I’ve explored visualization techniques and mediation. I’m going to make good use of Wellspring.ca Calgary. And I’ve even looked into mystic healers. Hell, if it’s not going to make it worse, why not give it a shot?

What is/was the best part of your challenge?

Perspective. I now have a better understanding of true friendship, true family, and true love. Not saying at all that I completely understand any of these things, but I sure understand them better than I did. The diagnosis provoked me to take action on a few issues in my life that I’ve been putting off, and helped me to make key decisions moving forward. It’s helped me close chapters in my life and open new ones. Although it’s only been approximately three months since my diagnosis, a lot can happen quickly when you want it to. It’s taught me that life truly is short (and possibly even shorter for some of us) so why keep things bottled up inside? What have I been waiting for for the past couple of years?

What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?

The initial shock of diagnosis has begun to subside, and I’m getting better at carrying on with my everyday life without the cancer word consuming my thoughts.

Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?

I did not attend any support groups, but I did attend a seminar on Lymphoma, put off by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at the Foothills Hospital (it was fantastic by the way). Although I felt like I was the only one there under the age 60, I did make a great connection with a 29 year old man that spoke on his experience with Hodgkin’s Disease. Since, we have kept in contact and I’ve found him good to talk to and vent some of my feelings and discuss my own situation.

How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?

When I told my sister about my diagnosis she mentioned Realtime cancer to me. After checking it out I decided immediately that I wanted to be connected with this group. As I’m sure is the case with some of you, I found it so comforting to hear people’s stories and experiences related to having cancer at such a young age. It really removes the feelings of isolation and alienation that I sometimes feel when talking to my friends who don’t have cancer. I sometimes find myself being jealous of my friends, and having the thought of none of these people really understand what I’m going through. Follicular Lymphoma is most prevalent in those over the age of 60, and reading the few profiles on YACC with the same diagnosis gave me a great feeling of comfort. I just wanted to add to the database and hope that I can help someone else out the same way that others have helped me.