Name: Brandon Fong
What school did/do you attend?University of Toronto
Do you work? Trade Marketing for a Consumers Packaged Goods company
What is/are your career goal(s)? I’m not entirely sure anymore. Having since survived cancer, I’m taking the time to reevaluate many things in my life, and one of them are my career goals.
Your Cancer experience:
How did you find out you were sick? What led to the diagnosis?
In December of 2009, my vision began to blur. It was fairly minor in the beginning. I initially thought my eyesight was getting worse. It wasn’t so bad, so I put it off. But it worsened. My vision went from a slight blur to becoming distorted. I was concerned, so I saw an Optometrist. He didn’t know what it was nor did he know what he was doing. He was younger than I and as green as a leaf. Needless to say, it wasn’t very reassuring. He tried a few things but they all failed. I was frustrated, as my vision got worse. I started seeing double. It got so bad that the only way I could operate was by closing one eye. It eventually reached it’s climax when I vomited. I was out with a friend who was a former nurse. She looked at me and said, “you need to go the hospital.”
I checked myself into Mt. Sinai Hospital, Toronto. I was in the ER and waited over an hour before I was placed in a room. I then waited another hour before I saw a GP. I told him what the issues were and he performed a neurological exam. He tested my eyes, my balance, motors skills and etc. He was concerned and requested a neurologist. After two hours of waiting she came. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She was testing my eyes when it happened. I was following her fingers as she led them through the air. At one point, my eyeball retracted into my socket. I could feel it as it spazzed. It ran so deep that I felt something behind my eye tense up, perhaps my optic nerve. She immediately ordered a CAT scan. The radiologist reviewed the results but they revealed nothing. An MRI was ordered. At that point it was late into the night that she suggested I stay.
I remember waking up to the sound of voices. I reached for my glasses and put them on. There were four doctors at my bedside. One of them was the head of the oncology ward, the rest were residence doctors. He had a clipboard snuggled between his armpits. He took a deep breath and said the following, “We have the results of your MRI, and they’re not good.” I swallowed, anticipating the worst. “You have a tumor in your brain, we don’t know what it is, just that it’s a tumor.” My heart sank. I looked for words but I couldn’t find them. I stared at the doctors, looking for a reason on their face. There was none. Was this a bad dream? Was I imagining things? Then, time froze.
I saw my life as a crystal ball, falling to the floor, shattering into a thousand pieces. My dreams, goals, and aspirations completely faded. At that point everything was so real. I was in a hospital bed and the sun was shining in. Four doctors had just told me I had a tumor the size of a peach in my brain. I was speechless. I was in shock. I wanted nothing more than my mother by my side. I felt completely alone. I tried to utter words out of mouth. But I couldn’t. The only thing I could do was cry. And cry I did.
What was/is your diagnosis?
Inter-cranial Germinoma Brain Cancer
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
April 26, 2010. I was 26-years old.
In which Hospitals were you treated?
Mount Sinai, Toronto Western Hospital and The Princess Margaret Hospital
At what level of education were you at diagnosis?
Undergraduate, Specialist in Digital Enterprise Management
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
I couldn’t think. I was reacting. My mind and body was filled with emotion. It was if I was in a terrible dream, one that I couldn’t wake up from, and that only got worse with time. Being alone in the in the city made matters worse. A tsunami of loneliness crashed over me. I felt like I was on an island, in a deep vast sea. I had nobody there other than myself. It was terrible.
How did your family react?
My family was devastated, especially my mother and youngest sister. My mother, who has sacrificed everything for her children, could not handle this. She couldn’t believe it. She didn’t want to believe it. She could barely talk. All she wanted was to be by my side. But she couldn’t, she was in Ottawa and I was in Toronto. I mentioned earlier how my life was shattered, so was hers.
And then there’s my youngest sister. Her and I are close. An awesome brother and sister duo we are. Full of silly nuances, witty humor, zingers, high-fives, and good times. She’s always looked up to me. Besides being a big brother, I’ve also been a father figure. I’ve been there for her in ways my father couldn’t. Telling her broke my heart.
The rest of my family was in a complete state of shock. As far as they knew, at least prior this, I was fine. I had a good job, was paving my career, ate healthy, exercised regularly, and was a happy-go-lucky guy. To them, this didn’t add up. They questioned God. I was the first person in our family to be diagnosed with cancer. Let alone brain cancer.
My cancer brought our family closer. Closer than it has ever been. It has given each one of us perspective on what is important. And that is love, family and friends. My family was my foundation and without them I wouldn’t be here. My mother took a three-month leave of absence and cared for me in Toronto. She was and still is my pillar of strength. She gave me guidance and support through my best and worst. I can’t articulate how I feel into words. I guess it’s something we all call love.
How did your friends react? Were you treated any different?
My friends couldn’t believe the news. Some of them even said, “don’t mess around with me.” They had just seen me a week beforehand. I was walking, talking, and being myself. Of course I complained about my eye from time to time, but to them it didn’t seem serious. At the time, I didn’t think so either. But here I was, on the phone, telling them what I had. I didn’t know how they were going to react. Each one of them handled it differently. Some of them cried, others asked why, and the few remained silent. In the end, they all got the message. I had brain cancer. To many of them this was wake up call to how precious life is.
Was I treated any differently? If you’re asking me, “did they feel sorry for me?” I suppose they did. I never looked for sympathy or pity, but it’s hard not to receive it when being diagnosed with cancer. All I asked of them was to believe in me and to support me. I should mention that I live in this city alone. The closest people I have here are my friends. From the beginning, they were there for me. I remember picking up the phone and calling two of my best friends when I was first diagnosed, Paul and Nicole. When I told them the news, they dropped everything they were doing. On the same day, they were there by my side. I was a complete wreck and I couldn’t make sense of it. It was such a dark place. But through their love and support, I was able to get through it.
What I’m trying to say is that my friends came through. They came through in ways I never thought. On the flipside, some remained absent. I had one high school friend who just ignored me. I later learned he couldn’t cope with it, so he distanced himself from me. I couldn’t blame him. Everyone reacts differently. For the better or for the worse.
What did your treatment consist of?
I consider myself lucky since I did not have to go through surgery or chemo. I received radiation treatment to my brain for a total of four tumors. I also received radiation to my spine. I had treatment everyday, five days a week, for just over a month. Each session lasted 30 to 45 minutes.
Before my treatment began, my Oncologist told me that everyone responds differently. Some people develop seizures, others can’t walk, you may get a secondary tumor, etc. It’s very depressing to hear what can cure you can also kill you, but what choice did I have? I had one mission objective and that was to live.
My first day of radiation was the absolute worst. Being strapped to a board via a face-mesh was many things. It was uncomfortable, weird, and made me feel claustrophobic. I was strapped so tight that I developed honeycomb imprints on my forehead. When I stepped off that board I could barely stand. I was depleted of all energy and just wanted to lie in bed. When I made it home I tried to get some sleep. But I began to sweat as I lay in bed. My body temperature rose and my heart raced. I had a sensation in my head. Somewhat like a fever, but much more intense, as though my brain was on fire. I began to panic. I concentrated on my breathing, told myself it would be okay, and eventually, it subsided. That was day one.
The next day I feared for the worst. I barely survived the first, “how could I survive a second?” However, when I stepped off that board, I seemed okay. I didn’t feel like lying in bed. My energy levels were fine. I was waiting for it, but nothing happened. I paused for a moment and thought to myself, “this isn’t that bad, let’s just hope I get more days like this.” So began my routine.
Throughout radiation therapy I felt reasonably well. If I were to give myself a graded score, I would say B+. Compared to the list of affects that could have happened, mine were pale in comparison. I was prone to sporadic outbursts of emotion. Either being very happy or extremely sad. At no point was I ever depressed. My energy levels decreased over time and I lost my hair, both unavoidable affects of radiation. A brain fog settled in. I became extremely forgetful and disoriented at times. This disappeared after treatment.
I was on steroids throughout. It had two effects on me: (1) urinate up to twenty times a day and (2) gain a mountain of weight. Urinating twenty times a day was annoying but manageable. I had to be close to a washroom at all times. An affect of steroids is an insatiable appetite. I felt like a 300 lb man stuck in an 180 lb body. My hunger exploded. I was eating up to six times a day and gorging on everything. Coupled with my newfound sense of living I wanted to try everything, just in case I couldn’t in the future. I became the Michelin Man in less than a month. I have since slashed the weight through vigorous exercise and diet.
What is your current medical status?
Cancer Survivor (Since August 2010)
How is life different for you now post diagnosis?
After surviving cancer you get a real sense that tomorrow may never come. Your life no longer becomes dictated. Instead you start living. What do I mean by that? You start becoming true to yourself. You stop caring about what others think and you start following your heart. For me, I’ve become more focused on my family, friends, and creating memories. I’m less concerned about money, status, power, and material things. My perspective has changed. I now realize I’m on a journey known as life. It’s up to me to make the most of it.
Tapping into my spirituality guided me through cancer. I’ve embraced a holistic view with everything around me. Simply put, “we’re all one people inhabiting this planet known as earth. It doesn’t matter what faith you are, color, or how you look. We all love, dream, have hopes and cry. We’re one people and we’re all interconnected. This planet is our home and its creatures are our friends.”
I’m embracing myself for who I am. I’m a cancer survivor at the age of 27. This experience has fundamentally changed me. Even though I’ve survived I’m still picking up the pieces. I’ve accepted that I need the support of others. Others who have gone through what I have. I’ve recognized that it’s going to take some time before I adjust back to normal life.
What was the toughest part of your challenge?
Accepting what I had was the most difficult part. For the longest time I denied my reality. I wouldn’t allow myself to deal with the negativity or the gravity of my situation. I would repeat like a broken record, “everything is going to be fine” when I knew it wasn’t. At first my family and friends interpreted my behavior as strength. But after a while, they thought it was odd. And they were right. I hadn’t dealt with my cancer. I was living a lie. I was in la-la-land. I had somehow convinced myself I didn’t have cancer and I was going to be fine. Imagine a kettle about to explode. That was me.
It all came crashing down one evening when I was out with a friend. Two twenty somethings breaking down at Yonge/Dundas subway station on a Friday night. And in that moment I had an epiphany. My reality. My situation. I had an overwhelming sensation to live. I embraced the view that this cancer was a challenge, one that I would conquer.
What was the best part of your challenge?
Through the months of going through cancer I found something. Something so empowering I can barely put it into words. It was like an infinite strength that came from within. The only way to describe would be, “my soul.” I remember I would meditate first thing in the morning. I would lie there and listen to my body. Speak to it, tell it that this cancer started from within and it would be cured from within. I would tell my body that I believe in myself. I would speak to my soul and do the same. Tell my soul that this was just a challenge in my life path. All the while meditating and visualizing all the things I have yet to accomplish in life. Being a father, raising a family, and finding my passion. And through this process, I would get this overwhelming sensation from within. It would ease me, lift my spirits, and assure me that everything would be fine. It felt like love.
What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?
Love kept me going. Whenever I had a moment of doubt. Whenever I had a dark thought in my mind. I would think about my family and friends. I could visualize them cheering me on. Saying, “you could do this Brandon,” “we believe in you.” I would imagine myself on a sunny day in the backyard at my uncle Charles. Not too distant in the future. Everyone would be there, family and friends. I would be standing, thanking each one of them for their love and support. That visual thought was so powerful to me. It made me feel that I wasn’t alone. I could feel their transcendent love.
I realized is the following: Love is pure and it’s infinite. It doesn’t know boundaries. It acts.
What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?
In many ways cancer has been a blessing to me. It’s taught me how precious life is. All the petty things just become background noise. Material wealth, possessions, image…they all mean nothing. What are important is you and this moment. This moment right here. Take advantage of it and make the most out of it. Don’t go crazy. Just appreciate; family, friends, the song of a bird, a hot summer day, or how great eggs Benedict are. These things are all precious and you don’t realize it until they’re gone. I’ve said goodbye to the past. I’ve accepted the present and I’m living for today.
What are your thoughts and feelings about your illness now? How have they changed since before your diagnosis?
Before, I found it difficult to share my story with others. I don’t know why, but somehow I felt ashamed. In some twisted way my mind had me feel so guilty. Guilty that I brought all this suffering and pain to the people I loved. I would see it on their faces and it was a haunting reminder of my guilt.
I’ve now moved past that. I have since survived Brain Cancer. I’m a cancer survivor and proud of it. I’m here to share my story with others.
What are some (if there are any you know of) preventative measures that people can take to lower their risk of having an experience like yours?
Listen to your body. We all have the tendency to think we’re invincible, especially as young adults.
A wise person once told me that we’re juggling three balls in life; money, happiness and health. Money comes and goes and so does happiness. But if you lose your health, it almost never comes back.
Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?
I didn’t attend any support groups. In fact, I only attended a support group after surviving cancer. During cancer, my support group was my family and friends.
If you did not attend a support group, why?
I knew they were available to me. I had this huge binder from PMH, telling me all the wonderful support groups out there like WellSpring, etc. I didn’t contact the support groups because of my pride. I felt that I didn’t need support outside my family and friends. I’ve since realized that’s not the case. Cancer changes you. You become vulnerable and it’s tough to make sense of it all. I recognize I need the support of other cancer survivors.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer Canada?
I attended the Gerry Pencer Cancer Support Group at PMH. A wonderful lady told me about this.
Are you interested in helping others facing cancer challenges? Yes