With Ghana under my belt, I now had stamps in my passport from countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. So I set my sights on South America next, taking advantage of the fact that my friend Meagan had secured a job in Ecuador. 

Another friend, Janele, joined me for this particular adventure, and it was nice to have a backpacking buddy to share the experience with (and help me steer clear of the hostels most likely to result in a stabbing). Unfortunately, circumstances didn’t always allow us to stick together.

The trip from Baños to Guayaquil to meet up with Meagan was the perfect example. When Janele and I boarded the bus that morning, it was already packed to the ceiling. Only two seats remained — one at the very front and one at the very back, which meant we’d be enduring the winding drive through the mountains without each other’s company. 

Squeezing between two passengers at the rear of the bus, I settled in for what would be a long day.

At first I was bummed to be stuck way in the back. But I soon changed my mind when I saw that Janele’s neighbouring seatmates included a mother and her crying infant. The child punctuated his displeasure by filling his diaper, prompting the mom to change his befouled bum then and there. 

From where I was sitting, I couldn’t tell if she used a butter knife to apply baby cream like all the pros do. But I did see what she did with the dirty diaper once she completed the smelly task. She simply wound up and hurled the poopy package out the bus window, sending it tumbling down the side of the mountain. 

Although I was grateful we wouldn’t have a stinky diaper on board for the next six hours, I felt sorry for the Ecuadorian farmer who might be working the slopes below. He would be in for an unpleasant surprise if he looked up at the wrong moment. There’s nothing like a dirty diaper in the face to ruin your day. 

With the poopy diaper disposed of, the mother then closed the bus window. Inexplicably, those behind her followed her lead. The temperature inside the bus skyrocketed immediately, and my Canadian sweat glands responded accordingly, drenching my T-shirt and assaulting the other passengers with my worsening body odour. 

My vantage point from the back seat offered a good view of how everyone else was handling the dangerous combination of heat and motion sickness caused by the bus lurching around hairpin turns as it navigated the mountain switchbacks. Not well, apparently. Before we reached our destination, I would witness not one, not two, but three children barf.

On one such occasion, I watched a little girl sway unsteadily in the aisle, her eyes half-closed as the nausea built. She tugged at her father’s shirt. Recognizing the imminence of his daughter’s purging, he scrambled to find a plastic grocery bag from under his seat and shoved his daughter’s head into it. 

Unfortunately, he failed to notice that the bag was full of holes. Vomit poured through the bag like a sieve, splattering onto the man’s shoes. I did my best to supress my own gag reflex as the smell reached the back of the bus.

Road construction delayed the excursion further, but after many torturous hours, we finally pulled into the station in Guayaquil. Exhausted, nauseous and in desperate need of a shower, I reunited with Janele, who had horror stories of her own to share about the trip.

Everybody goes through tough and turbulent times in their life that seem to drag on forever. However, although it may be hard to see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s important to remind yourself that “this too shall pass.” 

The bus ride through the mountains was hot, stinky, uncomfortable and lonely with Janele sitting way in the front. But it was only temporary. And recognizing that fact made the trip to Guayaquil easier to endure. 

My experience with chemotherapy was also a good lesson in patience. Indeed, there were many times when I would get frustrated with how long treatment was taking and how endless the road ahead of me seemed. 

Because waiting sucks. And cancer treatment involves a lot of waiting. Waiting to get your blood drawn. Waiting for the chemo orders to come through. Waiting around while that chemo drip … drip … drips into your body. Waiting for the anti-nausea meds to kick in. Waiting for doctors to find a bone marrow match.

A good example was after my initial stay in the hospital. For a month, they had hammered me with heavy-duty chemotherapy to get my rogue blood cells under control. But it would be another two weeks after I was discharged before they could tell if their pharmaceutical blitzkrieg succeeded in getting me into remission. 

Those two weeks felt like two years. But it turned out to be well worth the wait. Because when the results of my bone marrow biopsy arrived, the molecular test showed that I was indeed in remission. I still had a long, perilous journey ahead of me. But for the moment, those worries could wait.

Meanwhile, my second stretch as an inpatient at Princess Margaret Hospital also tested my patience. By this point, my immune system had been beaten to a pulp, and as a result I was prone to all manner of infection. A simple sneeze from a visitor could spell disaster. 

What ended up getting me were the typically harmless bacteria in my mouth that were now able to take hold and do some damage. Large sores formed on my tongue, and every breath I took filled me with excruciating pain. I couldn’t eat. I had a hard time talking. The nurses made me sleep with the head of the bed raised up so I wouldn’t choke on my massively swollen tongue.

When Dr. Galal showed up for his rounds the next day, I begged him to do something about the mouth sores. He was doing plenty, of course. I was being treated with antibiotics and a mouth rinse to speed recovery along. And they had my morphine jacked up as high as they safely could.

A warm and compassionate man, Dr. Galal assured me that they were doing everything humanly possible. “The only thing I can do,” he said, “is promise you that you’ll be feeling much better when I see you again next week.”

In the midst of the pain that the medication barely seemed to touch, “tough it out” wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. But sure enough, in a few days’ time, the swelling subsided and the sores started to shrink in response to the treatment. Slowly but surely, day by day, I eased off the morphine.

And when I saw Dr. Galal the next week, I smiled and thanked him for keeping his promise.

Preparing for the long road

Like toughing it out on the bus from Baños, waiting for remission results or dealing with a mangled mouth, there are times in life when the only thing you can do is wait. But even when you can’t hurry an obstacle along, there are always things you can do to make the long, winding road more bearable. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Come prepared — Whether you’re in a doctor’s waiting room or on a long flight, find ways to entertain yourself while you wait. Arm yourself with books, movies and crossword puzzles. Bring work with you to catch up on or take up a hobby like crocheting that you can do when you’re sitting around. 

Practise mindfulness — Practise deep breathing or download a meditation app to help keep your impatience in check. 

Break it down and celebrate the little milestones — My journey with cancer seemed to stretch on forever, with no end in sight. When you’re faced with an absurdly large problem, breaking it down into manageable chunks can keep it from overwhelming you. 

Meanwhile, making a point to acknowledge the little achievements — getting through the first phase of chemo, achieving remission, being able to walk up a flight of stairs — helped me see that I really was making progress. Set milestones for yourself along the way and celebrate your successes.

Find healthy distractions — Waiting for the phone to ring or test results to be posted? Stay busy so you don’t drive yourself bonkers. Read a book. Go for a walk. Get a jump on your kid’s Halloween costume. Remember, momentum is your friend.


Next: Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

GET THE BOOK

MORE STORIES