The Give | Battling death sentence

Battling a Death Sentence

Saint Johner Bob McVicar applauds ‘remarkable care’ as he fights cancer

As her mind reeled with the news that her partner, Bob McVicar, had terminal prostate cancer, Christine Gilliland sank into one of the big armchairs in the radiation oncology waiting room as he underwent his first treatment.

Bob McVicar, cancer patient

“I was sure we were going in for back surgery and I thought that was going to be difficult enough,” she says. “Cancer was not part of the equation at all. I was completely blindsided.”

It was August 10, 2019 and the couple had learned the news just hours before. Medical staff rushed to get him into treatment. That evening, he had his first radiation treatment.

Fourteen more would follow over the next 18 days. “The promptness of it just gave me a great deal of reassurance,” Mr. McVicar recalls. “Your head is still spinning. This news was so fresh but within two hours I was getting my first radiation treatment. It wasn't lost on me that this was just remarkable care that I was receiving.”

The next morning, he was taken for an MRI, a CAT scan and a battery of tests. Beyond the speed and quality of the medical attention hereceived, the couple marvels at the quality and compassion of his care.

“Not only was it efficient, but it was also human,” Ms. Gilliland says. “In this community, we have access to incredible care in such a loving, friendly and welcoming environment. And we’re home. We don’t have to travel for world-class care.”

As a former staff member of the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation, Ms. Gilliland knew that donors were behind some of the comforts that helped soothe their time in the hospital. She thinks back to that first night of the diagnosis when she collapsed into the big comfy armchair in the waiting room of the oncology unit.

“I was pretty much alone in the room and yet I didn't feel alone, somehow,” she says. “I didn't feel as frightened as I knew I should. I just kept telling myself, ‘There are people in this community who care enough to support others without even really knowing them. People who are giving these incredible gifts to help others going through a crazy time.’”

A few weeks later with the end of his radiation treatments, Mr. McVicar met Dr. Samantha Gray, a medical oncologist. When she asked what he understood of his condition, he said he just had a few months left.

Not necessarily, she said. She explained there were new treatment options, including oral chemotherapy medicine, that could give him another year or more.

“Well, geez, talk about a curveball!” Mr. McVicar says

“Both of us had gotten our heads around the fact that I was going to die shortly.”

There was even a living wake planned, which they decided to still hold. On a Sunday afternoon at Italian by Night, an uptown restaurant, hundreds of friends, neighbours and relatives came to pay their regards. One friend even flew in from China.

While the show of love was heartening, the darkness of the prognosis lurked. He was convinced death was imminent. He was interested in the new treatment plan, but only if he could expect a decent quality of life. From the outset of his cancer diagnosis, Mr. McVicar had no desire in extending his survival if it meant he would be sick and in pain.

Dr. Gray assured him he could expect a good quality of life. That September, he started taking the new treatment daily, in addition to the other medications included in his treatment plan.

Nearly two years later, when Dr. Gray asked if he’d be interested in Stay Strong, a 12-week program that helps oncology patients regain their strength and well-being, he was ready.

“That first year, when I still thought I was dying, I was afraid to do much of anything,” he says. “I was afraid I would hurt myself or wreck something or cause more damage.”

The disease had taken a heavy toll on his body. The cancer had woven around the nerves of his lower body and spread to his spine. For a time, he had extreme back pain and couldn't feel his legs or his feet. His strength and endurance were significantly reduced, as were his balance and mobility.

For Mr. McVicar, a busy realtor and extrovert with a severe case of self-diagnosed fear of missing out, it was a sharp decline from his active, social former life.

“We don't live very far from the places we socialize, but for two years, I didn't want to walk, I hopped in the car,” he says. “I was afraid I'd be tired. I was just ... afraid.”

He hated how he’d lost flexibility in his feet, so when he walked, “they were like a duck’s, they’d go plop, plop, plop.”

While he had been strong and active pre-cancer, Mr. McVicar says he was never a “gym guy.”

“I used to make the joke, ‘People get hurt at the gym, I'm not going to the gym,’” he says, chuckling.

But he made an exception for Stay Strong. He’s mighty glad he did.

“This is one of the best things I've done,” he says.“The first thing I loved about it was that the people giving me my program are connected to oncology. They know exactly what's going on with me. That gave me a great deal of confidence. And so, that fear that I would do something that would break or hurt myself was gone.”

Two or three times a week, he heads to the Saint John YMCA to walk the track and do his program of cardio, weights, mobility and balance exercises. After just six weeks, he was amazed at his progress.

“It just gives me more confidence and happiness,” he says.“Simple as that.”

Ms. Gilliland loves to see that, along with regaining his strength, his sense of optimism is returning as well. They’re resuming activities they love to share: strolling down the street to meet friends for a drink, hosting dinner parties, having a morning coffee together before work.

“Enjoying life while you're here is so key,” she says. Cancer is devastating to patients but also their families and relationships.

“Behind closed doors, there are a huge number of domestic challenges that come around a cancer diagnosis," she says.

“And so you can see how a program like this is beneficial for everybody's peace of mind. Psychologically, what this does for patients and families is incredible.”

And, like those comfy armchairs that held her in the sorrowful, surreal early day of their cancer journey together, Stay Strong is primarily funded by donors, whose generosity has meant so much to Ms. Gilliland.

"I'm so incredibly grateful for all the caring people who give to the Saint john Regional Hospital Foundation," she says. “All of the comforts that donors have provided through their gifts benefits patients, their families and the community.”

In this community, we have access to incredible care in such a loving, friendly and welcoming environment.... We don’t have to travel for world-class care. - Christine Gilliland

Christine Gilliland & Bob McVicar.

In recalling the journey two years after the grim diagnosis, Mr. McVicar speaks with a new strength and hope. His blood work and scans are encouraging.

“They say that the drugs are helping my cancer cells to die and allowing new bone cells to regenerate and grow,” he says. “And so here I am.”

In October 2021, he was getting ready to hand out Halloween treats to kids in his beloved uptown Saint John neighbourhood and feeling better than he had in a long time. Two years after his diagnosis, he was beginning to embrace the notion of a future, of living more fully.

“Back when I got the news, it occurred to me that I'd already seen my last Christmas, my last summer, my last this, my last that,” he says. “Now the third Christmas of the rest of my life is coming up. It's pretty remarkable.”

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