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Winning the Fight

Daffodil Day on April 27 is a special day to reflect, help and show support for those living with cancer

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Nick Geddes watched silently, as the dying golden sun streaked across the April sky — its rays slowly dipping below the Pacific Ocean's California horizon, heralding the end of another day.

But this wasn't just another day for Nick. It was April 15, 2011. He was watching that sunset from start to finish out of the back of an ambulance as it rushed him down the iconic west coast road from Monterey to San Francisco.

The everyday spectacle — the sun hugging the world in its last warm embrace — was more moving than any sunset Nick had ever seen in his 17 years.

And then it hit him; he had never truly watched a sunset before, not from start to finish, from complete daylight to utter darkness, for hours.

"I realized that I've never watched a sunset before," he said.

Just hours before the Whistler high school student had been told he had leukemia; the cancer was in 94 per cent of his bone marrow.

In that instant his world changed.

"It was like going from everything was normal, sitting on a bike to being in quarantine, can't leave this room, wearing masks," recalls Nick of that moment in time a year ago.

"It was two separate worlds in the course of five minutes."

Looking out at that sunset just beyond the square ambulance windows, Nick was facing the unthinkable — an uncertain, terrifying future.

Sunsets have a way of looking differently after that.

Nick's Story

"Mom, I just want to ride my bike."

The words cut into Lisa Geddes like a knife as she sat in Nick's hospital room at Stanford's Children's Hospital, thousands of miles away from home.

She had just rushed from Vancouver to San Francisco, joining her husband Bill at their son's bedside.

"It's just heart-breaking as a parent because you just want your kids to do whatever they want to do," recalls Lisa of that day just over a year ago.

Nick was doing just that — golden boy, with a mop of curly blond hair, on the verge of something big.

He was one of the best downhill mountain bikers in Canada, named 2010 Canadian Junior Downhill champion.

He was two months away from his high school graduation with eyes on the engineering program at UBC.

The next chapter in his life was yet to be written, but it was setting up to be a good story to tell.

Leukemia was never supposed to be a part of the tale.

Sitting in his living room in his Alpine home last week, Nick opens up. His mother Lisa is beside him, dad Bill in the background.

His younger brother Zander is out and his ten-year-old sister Sarah is upstairs. Dinner is in the oven — normal everyday life ticking on.

But last April it was as if time had stopped and the surreal took over.

Nick's story is as much Bill and Lisa's, as together the three-some delve into the account of the last year, finishing each other's sentences, correcting faulty memories, sharing laughs at the ridiculous, nodding quietly at the horrors.

Their collective patois is peppered with what has come to them to be everyday words — platelets, transfusions, oncologist, chemo, transplant, remission.

The language of cancer.

Lisa watches her son as he tells his side of the story.

Does she see the tall, tanned, confident, eloquent young man relaxing on the couch, eating an orange, talking about the statistics of his survival?

Or does the ghost of Nick eight months ago, in the darkest moments of his young life, haunt her still? His already slim build 30 pounds lighter, a shiny bald head where blonde curly hair used to be, a swollen face, light blue eyes sunken with pain, vomiting, helpless — her little boy transforming into a sick old man before her very eyes.

It's hard to tell what Lisa sees now. Her view of the world is forever altered.

"I used to think that I lived with gratitude," she says quietly. And she did. She knew she had a blessed life — beautiful children, comfortable home, a Whistler lifestyle. Health.

Just before diagnosis she had been thinking about Nick's upcoming graduation, about how quickly the last 17 years had passed, about how time with him would be changing as he moved on to university.

"But you can still take things for granted," she says. "I will try never to take things for granted again."

From early 2011, Nick wasn't well. There was the stomach flu, an ear infection followed by a ruptured eardrum, pneumonia.

"Obviously it made sense once I was diagnosed," says Nick.

Even though the end of his skier cross season was a write-off, he had high hopes for his mountain biking season in 2011.

That April day a year ago Nick was competing in Monterey's Sea Otter Classic, one of the first mountain biking competitions of the season.

He crashed in the dual slalom finals and was taken to the local hospital following a minor concussion.

A routine blood test changed everything.

"The oncologist did say that the crash was obviously a blessing in disguise because Nick would have maybe gone a week, maybe ten days without feeling really sick," says Lisa.

And by then the cancer would have ravaged his body.

As the minutes ticked by in California the cancer was ravaging his body — quickly.

There was some debate about starting the treatment immediately. In the end, however, it was decided it would be best if the family could get back to Vancouver — not quite home but close enough.

Nick flew back with his mom, while Bill drove the truck back to Canada with Zander and another family friend — an impossibly long journey until he was with his sick son again.

As soon as Nick landed in Vancouver he was whisked straight to BC Children's Hospital. Chemotherapy began in the days that followed.

Nick had T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia with Ambiguous Lineage.

"He was classified as a very high risk," says Bill.

In those early weeks the doctors tried to put the cancer into remission.

They almost managed — but not quite.

Nick would need a bone marrow transplant.

No one in the family was a match, but a 24-year-old man somewhere in North America was.

Was he still willing to give his bone marrow? Did he have time to do it?

He did.

Nick was blasted again with chemotherapy and total body irradiation leading up to the transplant as the doctors tried to get rid of the cancer.

Day Zero dawned. August 9 — a Tuesday. A small plastic bag of what looked like just watered down blood was put into Nick over about an hour — 90 millilitres of bone marrow.

Life. Hope. A Future.

He battled it alone in an eight by 10 square foot room, specially ventilated and pressurized, his parents at his side.

"The first two weeks is beyond description," says Bill of last August.

Those words hang in space.

How can a dad talk about what it's like to see his son in agony over days, vomiting every 45 minutes as his ravaged body worked on the transplant?

Nick couldn't talk, couldn't eat, barely drank, hallucinated.

Fortunately he doesn't remember the details; Lisa and Bill will likely never forget them.

Around him more than a dozen plastic bags fed various things into his body through a central catheter in his chest — food, liquid, morphine, anti-nausea meds, anti bacterial drugs.

The minutes, the hours, the days ticked by.

It was working. Thirty-one days later Nick was allowed to come back to Whistler, not out of the woods, but well enough to come home.

Keith's story

Keith Mellor is reticent to share his story.

"It's not that fabulous, really," he shrugs in his neat, dark-blue firefighter's uniform.

"I kind of feel like a cheater almost. I got off lucky...I know other people in my family, other people, period, who had much harder go's and my heart goes out to them. Because nobody has a choice..."

Fourteen years ago the career firefighter didn't have a choice either.

He was at the fireman's ball at the GLC, an annual event to raise money for equipment the fire hall wouldn't otherwise get, when he began to take notice.

Keith touches the spot on his neck under his right ear as he recalls the night.

Twice in the course of the evening someone asked him about the lump under his ear.

It was enough to give him some concern and he went to see Dr. Tom DeMarco right away.

"Several years later he showed me his notebook and he had written down Hodgkin's disease right there and then," says Keith.

The doctor was right. But he didn't tell Keith. Instead he sent him to Squamish for a biopsy.

Stage 1 Hodgkin's disease, now called Hodgkin's lymphoma — cancer originating from white blood cells.

"I had the weirdest feeling, like I was ecstatic, like I'd won the Stanley Cup because I thought it could have been so much worse," says Keith. "I felt like I'd won the lottery which is really weird...Anyone else would have been devastated."

Keith knew that his chances of survival were very good; it was the same cancer that hockey great Mario Lemieux had been diagnosed with five years previous. And he came back from Hodgkin's to set NHL records.

Still, life had to go on hold for the time being.

Keith stopped working, devoting all his attention to getting the cancer out of his body and getting well again.

The details are hazy now — how often he went for chemotherapy at Lions Gate Hospital, how much of a toll it took on his body.

He was just 38 years old, not married, no family.

The cancer forced him to think about the future. What if the treatment made him sterile? Would it ruin his chances of having a family down the road?

He decided to bank some sperm, just in case. He didn't need it. And now he's the proud father of two young girls.

Keith says he never dwelled on the dark side of cancer.

He does, however, remember the radiation treatment.

Pulling down his collared shirt, Keith shows off his only tattoo. A tiny brown dot against his tanned skin. It's perhaps the only physical reminder now of his ordeal.

"They landmark where they're going to hit you with the radiation," he says.

Every day for two weeks he had radiation on the spot on his neck.

After a few days he knew he was in for a rough ride — things started smelling funny, tasting funny and by the end of the second week it was a chore to sip a thin milkshake.

It was, he admits, one of the most trying times of his life.

"It's funny how you don't remember. Maybe you just put these things behind you or something."

He shows off a picture hanging in the fire hall from that time.

Two dozen or so firefighters are grinning into the camera. All are bald, smiling. It's their act of solidarity for a stricken brother.

Sure, the details of the cancer fight may be hazy now, but it's things like that Keith will never forget.

Leslie's story

Leslie Weir's hair is just starting to grow back. The brown bristles cover her whole head uniformly.

It may look like she's in the thick of cancer treatment but Leslie is fighting fit — physically, at least. She passed her ten-year milestone of brain cancer last year.

"It's a thing," she says, of the decade marker. "It's a good thing."

The new haircut is courtesy of the Balding For Dollars cancer fundraiser recently. The yellow daffodil pin on her chest, the bracelets on her wrist, the light pink socks that declare "Cancer Sucks" are all badges of her battle. They tell the world — I'm a "Survivor," and proud of it.

In a calm matter-of-fact voice, pausing to collect her thoughts, Leslie recounts her story.

She was 35-years-old, a long-standing groomer on Blackcomb Mountain. Whistler had been her home for about ten years.

At a work meeting in 2001 near the end of the season Leslie had a grand mal seizure.

She was taken to the clinic. The seizure passed and she didn't think much of it — partying too hard, working long, midnight hours. Perhaps her body was just worn-out.

But she had to follow-up with a specialist in the city.

"I was so sure it was nothing I didn't ask a friend to come down or anything," she says. "And yeah, I found out in a very sad way."

Alone.

She learned she had a tumour in her brain the size of a small lemon. She would need a seven-hour surgery just to get it out. And only then would she learn if it was cancerous.

It was.

She indicates the front, left side of her head.

"The worst thing is memory," she says.

She can remember who her best friend was when she was five-years-old, but short-term memory is a challenge.

"I have to write things down," she says.

And so when she found a lump five years later in her breast, she was in disbelief that it could be cancerous — to beat brain cancer only then to battle anew with breast cancer?

"I left it too long," she says. "I was so: 'I don't have another cancer.'"

She holds up her left arm, swollen down to her fingertips. The cancer had spread from her breast to her lymph nodes and with the lymph nodes now gone; the arm doesn't drain as well.

Holding her arms up side-by-side, her sweater falls back a little, showing her yellow Livestrong bracelet beside the blue Theo's Basecamp bracelet.

"Have you read Theo's story?" she asks, as the shouts and yells of healthy children wash over the conversation at the Blendz coffee park. "It's just awful."

Theo Lazardis is a two-year-old Squamish boy being treated for childhood leukemia.

She knows Theo's dad from her days as a groomer.

Leslie shakes her head to think of a child going through what she's gone through — the unfairness of it all.

"I was so sure that brain cancer was worse than breast cancer... I just didn't think it was going to hit me as hard as it did. But it did. That's hell and back, it really is."

Though it's been five years since the breast cancer, Leslie doesn't feel back to herself at all. There's an emotional toll that she's still struggling with. And some days are harder than others.

"It's the meanest thing out there," she says of cancer. "I know I was very lucky to get through it. I don't know why I got it, but at the same time I'm not back to myself since breast cancer at all."

Jen's story

Jen Leigh knows why she got cancer. In fact, she says she would have been surprised if the biopsy had turned out negative.

Her mom, her grandma, her great aunt and her aunt have all had breast cancer.

"I had a feeling with the family history I was going to get breast cancer, it was a matter of when," she says.

So in the fall of 2007 when she was diagnosed it wasn't a huge shock. In a way, it was good to know she didn't have to wait for the other shoe to drop any longer. It had dropped.

Don't be fooled. It was still a devastating blow and she had all those thoughts that flood your mind when faced with cancer: What am I going to do? Am I going to die from this? What's going to happen to my kids?

The day after she found out, the family was off to Hawaii for a planned vacation. There were, admits Jen, a few tears on the plane.

But it was hard to stay down boogie boarding in the surf with the kids, and soaking up the Hawaiian sun.

Though the cancer was just on one side, Jen knew what she wanted to do. With the family history, she felt that a double-mastectomy was her best option.

Plus, she deadpans with a cheeky smile, she wanted "a matching set."

Over the course of a year Jen had her breasts removed and new implants put in. The silver lining, she says, was going from a B cup to a Double D.

Why not, after all? It suits her.

The day after the surgery was done she hit Metro Town Mall and tried on new tops, checking out her new bustier profile.

The silver lining, she says again.

There were times though when she thought twice about her decision, grappled with the question of whether she was doing the right thing or not.

"I learned that you have to make a decision and go with it," she says. "You can't dwell on the past and what-ifs."

That attitude carried forward after the cancer was gone.

In the fall of 2008 Jen was accepted to a Master's program, done by online distant education.

The last time she was in school, she says was 1989, when she finished her undergrad in nursing. Learning has come a long way since then. She barely used a computer back in the late eighties; now it was all about the computer.

Five weeks into the program Jen says she was struggling. She had lost ten pounds, was losing sleep, forgetting everyday things for her kids, like bringing skates to her daughter's figure skating lessons. She was stressed.

Having cancer gave her a new perspective. Was she going to endure another two and half years like this, or take action now.

She quit, telling herself: "Don't stay in the Master's program because you think it's something you need to do and this was your plan."

Plans change. Accept it. Make a decision. Move on to the next plan.

Jen has daily reminders of her cancer — the scars when she looks in the mirror every day. But she doesn't dwell on it.

She's part of a research study looking at breast cancer in pre-menopausal women.

"There's five girls in the next generation," she says of her family.

"(I'll do) anything I can to help with the research in terms of their future too."

Nick's story

It's been eight months since his transplant. Eight months cancer-free.

Like Jen's figure, Keith's tattoo, and Leslie's swollen arm, Nick too bears the physical changes of cancer.

His aren't as visible though.

Flowing through Nick's body is new blood; different from the Type B he was born with.

He is now Type A, the same blood type as his anonymous donor.

Nick is what's called a "chimera" — he has two different DNA's.

His blood is his donor's DNA, his hair and skin his original DNA.

This month he was back on his bike, competing for the first time again.

"I placed 16th, which wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but you know what, I had fun and was just glad to be back on the bike and not too bothered with it," he shrugs.

The past year has brought the Geddes family closer together. And Nick has been changed profoundly.

"I tend not to look at stuff as critically as a I used to," he says.

Where once he would have been thinking about races weeks ahead of time, planning about what time he wanted and how he was going to get it, now he takes a more day-by-day approach.

"I've noticed that he's noticing more around him," says his mom.

Earlier this year the Geddes family travelled to Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands on a family holiday. For six weeks Nick didn't see any doctors, had no hospital visits and simply had time to live.

They probably took about 500 pictures of sunsets while they were on vacation, they say laughing about it as they think back on their holiday.

Because, it just may be that for Nick sunsets will never look quite the same again.

Daffodil Days are here

The Canadian Cancer Society is in the homestretch of its annual Daffodil campaign.

In Whistler daffodils were on sale over the April 14-15 weekend and the community came out in force.

"People were very generous," said Sue Woods, manager of revenue development for the Canadian Cancer Society. "Both the community and the visitors."

The annual campaign, with its signature cheerful yellow flower is designed not only to raise funds but also awareness about cancer. It is gaining momentum year-over-year, she added, particularly the new daffodil pins that were created in B.C. in 2010 and have now spread nationally.

"It's showing your sign of support for those that are on their cancer journey," said Woods, of wearing a pin or buying the daffodils.

"We may not understand what they're going through but... they're not alone."

The final tally on the Whistler numbers isn't complete and the fundraising across the country continues until the end of the month.

Daffodil Day has been designated as Friday April 27.

The society appeals to Canadians to take a moment on this day to think about the thousands of people who are living with cancer and to remember those who have died.