Battling cancer gives new perspective on life

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Josh McGonegal is a fifteen-year-old cancer patient at McMaster Children’s Hospital and the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre. He has recently completed his cancer treatments and is looking forward to going back to school and playing sports again. In his own words, Josh was willing to share his courageous storyÉ

In May 2002, I was on the baseball team in Thorold, Ontario. I kept missing the ball during practices and during our first game, I almost got hit in the face with a line drive. When that happened, my coach, who had known me for years, told me that I couldn’t go back onto the field until I had my eyes tested.

My vision had been blurry for a long time. I had also been getting really bad migraines for months and was sick to my stomach most mornings. I didn’t have a regular family doctor, but I had been to several different walk-in clinics. I was told that my symptoms were possibly a result of allergies or stress.

My symptoms kept getting worse, and I lost 35 pounds in one month. I finally found a pediatrician who suspected that something major was wrong with me. She ordered a CT scan, and in the meantime told me to have my eyes tested. It was my optometrist who saw the swelling behind my eyes and told me I needed immediate medical attention. The next few days were a blur and I ended up at McMaster Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Hollenberg, a neurosurgeon, saw me right away and on June 19, 2002, I was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He said that I needed surgery immediately and made arrangements to open the operating room on a Sunday, even though they are usually closed on weekends. Dr. Hollenberg told me that it was likely I’d still have cancer even after the surgery and that my chance of survival was about 50 per cent.

I don’t remember much about my surgery, but I was told I gave my surgeon a “thumbs up” sign as I was being wheeled into the recovery room.

Most of my tumour was removed during the surgery, but some sections were inoperable. I stayed in the intensive care unit for two days and then on wards 3B and 3C for two weeks before I was able to go home.

Going home made me realize that life was already different. I didn’t have a lot of energy and I was in bed most of the time. The one time I did go out was to a pool hall with a friend and I ended up getting pretty sick and having to go home early. My friends were really good to me that summer and I had a lot of visitors.

After recovering from surgery, radiation was the next step in my treatment that began on July 23rd at the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre.

Radiation is when a lot of light hits you in certain spots in order to kill the cancer cells. A mask was made to fit around my head, and the areas where my cancer was located were marked so the light could hit them directly. It was tough to be still for 45 minutes during the radiation treatments and I sometimes got nauseous. Towards the end of my treatments, my neck and head were swollen and the mask pinched me in places.

It was during my radiation therapy that my hair fell out. That was a pretty big deal for me.

The staff at the cancer centre were really cool and would let me bring in my own CDs. It was nice because even though the treatments were uncomfortable, they were still trying to make me as happy as they could. I even remember them dancing around to my music while I was getting my radiation therapy.

In total, I had 35 radiation treatments at the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre. I went every Monday to Friday for seven weeks and my mom would drive me there from St. Catharines. The trips to and from the hospital were really great because they helped my mom and I grow closer.

Chemotherapy was the next stage in my treatment plan. Chemotherapy destroys cancer cells in the body, but also attacks other cells, which is another reason why my hair is gone.

My chemotherapy treatments started in October and followed a monthly schedule. I would come to the hospital during the first week for heavy-duty chemotherapy and during the second and third weeks, for blood tests and for more rounds of chemotherapy that were easier on my system. Then, the fourth week would be a week of rest so that my body could recover and my blood counts could go back up.

I’ve had a few setbacks over the past year. Because the chemotherapy is killing off cells, I could get infections easily. On days when I wasn’t feeling well or if I had a fever, I had to come into the hospital.

In August, I was supposed to be going to Camp Trillium, a camp for kids with cancer, cancer survivors and their families. Right before I was supposed to leave, my blood tests came back showing an infection. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to go to camp, but the doctors gave me oral antibiotics and I did end up going to camp for four days. It was really nice to be outside.

Every 10 weeks, I had to have an MRI and each showed a couple of spots of cancer that were inoperable. This past June, I had an MRI and it was the first one that showed those spots were gone.

August 21, 2003, was the last day of my last inpatient chemotherapy sessions. I still have a few more clinic visits and I will be monitored closely for the next six months to make sure the cancer doesn’t become active again.

Through my whole cancer experience, I have been very lucky to have such great nurses. They treated me like I was part of their family. They made sure I received everything I needed, and if there was something missing, they went to bat for me to make sure I got it.

Dr. Hollenberg is an amazing doctor. He was very upfront with me. Before my surgery, he told me that there was a chance I could die. I was glad that he was so honest because it meant I didn’t need to worry about what wasn’t being said.

There are many unknowns about the future, including whether or not I will be able to have children. What I do know is that I’m looking forward to getting my life back on track and starting school again. Even though my inpatient chemo treatments are over, I know the McMaster Children’s Hospital will still help me. They are going to help me get back on my feet, back to school and back to having a normal life again. In the future, I would like to get into social work and help other kids who have cancer.

Having cancer has brought some good things to my life. It has brought me a lot closer to my family and God. I’ve been able to take a step back and realize what is really important and that you can’t take anything for granted. There will always be something to complain about. What you have to remember is that there is always someone out there who is worse off than you.