Stephen Sollows

My name is Stephen Sollows and I live in Sand Beach, Nova Scotia. I am 64 years old. I am a privileged white male who has never had a significant challenge in my entire life. I was born in a loving household and our family was and is close. We were brought up to see that the glass is always half full and my children also recognize this is true of life. My parents both lived healthy lives well into their 90s. How fortunate we have been.

My story began when, in April 2021, I was drying myself when I got out of the shower and I noticed that the towel passing along my back caused a bit of sensitivity in one spot. I reached back with my thumb and pushed on it a bit and it felt like a common bruise. I am very active and sometimes I fall so this was not an issue except for the fact that I realized that I had not fallen on my back any time recently. Two weeks went by and the bruised sensation stayed. I decided to call my doctor. In May, I was able to get in to see him. By this time, I was also having some muscle spasms and he felt that I had a displaced joint. He tried to re-align things but it only caused pain and no relief or change to my condition. I went back to my doctor a couple of weeks later when I discovered that the area that felt like it was bruised now had a small lump protruding from it. It was decided that I should get an x-ray and I also got a referral to a chiropractor. The chiropractor did not seem to help. Once the x-ray was performed, it showed the usual wear and tear normal for my age, but nothing too unusual except a shadow which was not definitive. I was then scheduled for a CT scan.

After the CT scan was completed, I was immediately called into my doctor’s office at 8:30am on a Monday morning. I was suspicious that the news might be a bit troubling. He sat me down and told me that I had metastasised lung cancer, stage 4b. It was in my left lobe, my spine, the bones in my spine, my hip, my pelvis, my ischium, and probably in my liver. He indicated that the bones in my spine were so compromised that he suggested that I stop being active and get some books to read. This was shocking news. I was always as healthy as can be. I was very active; I did not drink, do any drugs, was not on any prescription drugs, I was not obese or overweight, did not have diabetes and had no pre-existing health issues at all. It all seemed, well…weird. Then I thought to myself; I know of people who have had Stage 4 lung cancer in the past, within 3 months of their diagnosis, all had died. My doctor said to me that he did not know the details of many of the new cancer treatments and therapies, but that many treatments have meant better outcomes for patients than even just a few short years ago. He would also make an appointment with a thoracic surgeon in Halifax and I would hear from him within 5 days.

I left his office. I got in my car and I remember saying “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit”. Now what do I do? What do I say to my family? How do I tell them? How can I tell them this news?

I tend to be a straight talker and get right to the point. I prefer to get bad news first. I will do the same for them. Not gentle, but no beating around the bush. I will share with them exactly what I know and what I have been told.

And so, I did. I got home and immediately told my wife and one son at home. I set up a Zoom call to inform my two daughters and their partners. It was clear that it was shocking to them, but now at least, we all had the same information. I could immediately see it was tougher on my family members than it was on me. That was painful.

The first 2 days I must say I was in a bit of a daze. I suspected I would live for perhaps 2-3 months and that my condition would likely deteriorate quite quickly. At this point I was getting some discomfort; a shocking sensation in my back when I walked and pain in my back at night when I slept on one side. I felt I had to accomplish a lot in a short period of time. I must clean out my accumulated life’s “junk” to spare my family the pain and problems associated with decluttering. So much stuff to get rid of. I did it, or at least started to do a lot of it.

Three days later I receive a call from my thoracic surgeon. After a brief review of my condition, it was clear that I needed to see a radiation oncologist and a medical oncologist. Appointments were set up and within a very short period of time I was scheduled for more tests and a meeting with my oncologists. They interviewed me and gave me lots of detailed information which would help me make decisions and also gave me a glimmer of hope about my seemingly desperate situation. A lung biopsy was necessary so that they could determine just what type of cancer I had and from there what types of treatments or therapies might possibly be helpful. My medical oncologist also said that I may have a genetic mutation and that there were approximately 9 types of genetic mutations and about 6 of those are somewhat treatable in extending one’s life. “Yup, sure,” I thought, “What are the chances of me having a genetic mutation?”

Due to the instability and degradation in my spine caused by the cancer, I began treatment with radiation to my spine, even before the genetic testing was completed. The radiation treatments went very well with little side effects.

Almost 3 weeks later I get the results from the genetic tests: I do have a genetic mutation and it may be treatable with a single pill a day. The pill is called Tagrisso (osimerinib) and it may slow my cancer’s growth or possible even shrink the cancer. I feel like I have just won the lottery, never mind that there are a lot of maybes. It is the best possible news which I could get at this point. It’s a happy day.

Soon those radiation treatments have taken the swelling out of my back. The Tagrisso is started and I am feeling well again. I now will start on another treatment which will help strengthen my diseased bones. It is called Xgiva (denosumab). It works too. I remind myself of Scrooge in the scene in “A Christmas Carol” when Scrooge comes bursting down the stairwell on Christmas morning and grabs his long-suffering housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber by the arms and gives her a great big kiss, followed by “Merry Christmas”. She freaks out and screams. Like Scrooge, I can’t believe the incredible gift which I have received, though mine is in the form of modern treatments and therapies which will help extend my life. Wow! Unbelievable, but it happened.
A month after I start on my targeted therapy, I have a CT scan. My lung tumour has shrunk by 45 % of its mass. Life is good. I am not in any pain anymore. I simply feel normal. And so, I resume my normal life, except that now I wake every day with a smile, go to bed every night with a smile and enjoy every aspect of life. I am very thankful.

I guess it is easy for any of us to take our life for granted. I now know better, and feel perhaps the happiest that I ever have. Yes, there are challenges along the way, but those challenges have been easy mountains to climb for me to date. How can one ask for any more?
In closing I remember sharing an image taken by the Hubble Space telescope with my Sunday School class many years ago. It was taken looking out into the darkest area of the sky where there may have been nothing to be seen at all. Instead, the image clearly shows dozens of living, spiralling galaxies where little was thought to exist. This image is a reminder to me of the massive amount of matter which exists. When one realizes that we are only alive because just the right elements, in just the right atmosphere, on just the right planet, in just the right solar system do exist and it produced life and me and you.

Well, the actual chances of any of us being here today are really about 0%. All things considered, how can I not be happy to be here and be given this extension of life. I have to close, I am giggling again! Oh…Merry Christmas all.

Stephen Sollows
Stage 4b cancer patient
Yarmouth, NS