When he learned that his cancer had returned, Gareth Smart admits that he wondered if he could go through the treatment a second time.
“I had a moment where I went ‘Screw it, I’m not going through this again.’ Then I thought ‘I can’t imagine how pissed off my mom would be if I did that.’”
The news that his cancer — a very broad type of lymphoma — had returned came almost exactly two years after he was first diagnosed. The longtime Cache Creek resident, who is currently living in Abbotsford near where he is receiving treatment, says that in 2018 he got sick and was suffering from “massive” muscle pain.
“For a long time the doctors didn’t know if I had a virus or if I had cancer,” he says. “It was presenting like a virus, and I had a high white blood cell count, but I was drenching the bed with night sweats every night. One doctor said ‘That’s cancer,’ and another said ‘It’s a virus.’”
A first biopsy on part of one of his lymph nodes was inconclusive. A second biopsy, on a whole lymph node, confirmed that it was a type of cancer Smart describes as the Cadillac of cancers.
“If you’re going to get a cancer, this is the cancer you want to get. No matter what stage you’re in, one through four, you will recover from it.”
Smart was in stage two when he was first diagnosed in November 2018, and began taking a series of chemo medications.
“They wanted to be as aggressive as possible because my lymphoma was atypical,” he says. He had three rounds of chemo, consisting of an intravenous cocktail known as R-CHOP, then 15 days of radiation, once a day for three weeks (not including weekends). The chemo was done in Abbotsford, while the radiation took place in Kelowna, where Smart’s doctor was.
“He wanted to keep an eye on me,” says Smart. In hindsight, however, he wishes he’d asked if he could get any of the treatment in Kamloops.
“I never asked if there were resources closer to home, and I still don’t know if I could have gone and got treatment in Kamloops. They said ‘Kelowna is where the doctors are,’ and my doctor was there, so I just went to Kelowna.”
He says that his hair came out during his first treatment, in some expected places (such as his head) and some unexpected places. What got to him the most, however, was losing his goatee.
“Losing my hair wasn’t so bad, because I was expecting that. What I hated the most was losing my goatee. That was a sad day. I’m losing the hair on my head anyway because of male pattern baldness, but the goatee was a personality trait.
“Losing my goatee made me feel like a cancer patient.”
Smart says that after the treatment is finished there is a check every three months for two years. “They check out the main spots on the lymph nodes and do blood tests, and if the numbers are good and there are no lumps or bumps then you’re cleared until the next time.”
After two years the checks decrease to every six months, and after five years of clear tests you are considered cancer-free. However, once the pandemic started in early 2020, the check-up sessions changed.
“I would get the blood work done, and they’d say ‘The numbers look fine, talk to you again in another three months.’ After two or three of those, though, they really want to see you in person.”
It wasn’t until November 2020 that he had another in-person check, and was told the lymphoma was back.
“It was exactly the same kind of lymphoma, and when I went in for a scan they saw it was stage three this time. It’s the same treatment again, except six rounds of chemo instead of three.”
Smart says that while he threw a bit of a pity party for himself at both diagnoses, he thinks he took it better the first time.
“The second time I was like ‘Really?’ I always had it in the back of my head I could get another cancer, but after almost two years of being clean I thought ‘Maybe, just maybe …’ Then bam.
“During the treatments it’s very clichéd, like you see in the movies. You’re going to get nauseous, you’ll feel weak and tired. I’m really pushing myself to work, and I have to take a step back and remember I can’t do that right now.”
He has one chemo treatment left this weekend, then will be off to Kelowna in May to see his doctor and find out where he goes from here. Despite everything, he says that in some ways he feels he’s got off lightly compared to others with cancer.
“I got away with a scar on my neck and that’s it. I’ll have that scar forever, and every time I meet someone new and they ask me about it I have to explain. People are interested, if it’s not an experience they’ve had themselves.”
He notes that there are resources out there, whether it’s people to talk to, financial resources, or places like Ronald McDonald House, where people can stay to be near where they’re having treatment. He adds that if someone is going through this and doesn’t have anyone to talk to, they can contact him through Facebook.
“My grandfather had another type of lymphoma right after I did, and he was scared, so I went and talked to him. People shouldn’t feel alone.”