Three years ago Bob Cheriton was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he had a 20 per cent chance of surviving a year.
Today, he is enjoying playing golf several times a week at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club, and life remains much as it was before his diagnosis.
He is still on the NOTL Hydro board, remains a key organizer of the Santa Claus Parade, and continues to meet weekly with a group of friends at the community centre.
He was told in 2016 that the odds of living to see the summer of 2017 were not good, he says, “and here I am. It’s been an interesting experience to say the least.”
Despite a diagnosis of a cancer that has no cure, Cheriton says he considers himself “a lucky guy. I’m really, really fortunate. Here we are in 2019, and I live a pretty normal life.”
He does have to work around the cycle of chemotherapy treatments, which he has once a week, three weeks out of four, 12 months of the year. While they are not expected to get rid of the cancer, they should slow down its growth and buy him more time, he says.
He finds himself more tired than usual in the two or three days following the treatment, and then he has a couple of good days before starting the cycle again, “but that’s okay. It’s a lot better than the alternative.”
He remains strong, and through it all, he keeps active and displays an incredibly positive attitude.
“Attitude is one of those intangibles that’s hard to measure. I believe attitude is critically important, and remaining active is also critically important. I’m absolutely committed in my mind to remaining active.”
He has lost his hair, but it’s coming back, and at the age of almost 71, a patch of baldness isn’t so bad, he jokes.
He has also lost some weight, and is happy to be close to his doctor’s recommendation in that department. He finds there is less stress on his hips and knees, and he can play golf with no pain — although he wishes he could play it better.
“It gives me a sense of purpose, that never-ending pursuit of perfection in golf. But my friends say, “Cheriton, not a chance. It isn’t going to happen.”
He still plays nine holes without a cart. He’s in the WOOF league and the men’s league at the NOTL Golf Club, and sometimes goes out as well with his wife.
He uses a cart if he’s playing 18 holes, “but I find that takes more energy than walking nine holes.”
This path he is on began in 2016, when he was experiencing some stomach discomfort, and after seeing his doctor and having some tests, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He learned that 90 per cent of the time it’s too late for surgery, and that he had a 20 per cent chance of living a year, but he knows now he was lucky it was caught early. He was considered palliative, but he wasn’t about to accept that too readily. He began doing his own research, sought second and third opinions.
He discovered an option for patients with inoperable or difficult-to-reach tumours, called irreversible electroporation (IRE) which uses short, repetitive, high-energy pulses of electricity to destroy cancer cells.
t was still considered experimental in Canada for treating liver cancer, because tumours on the pancreas are usually hidden, and difficult to reach with the electrical impulses.
But he found a doctor in Germany who was using IRE on pancreatic tumours, involving surgery to reach them.
When his Niagara doctors were less than enthusiastic about the treatment, he went to the Mayo Clinic for a second opinion and received the same skepticism.
While he began aggressive chemotherapy here at home, he also decided to go to Germany for the treatment, which bought him more time.
That, and the ongoing chemotherapy, “is, I believe, the best hope to keep it under control. And with the support and advice of many incredible people, I’ve had a pretty special journey.”
He can only hope that the longer the treatments work, the more time he’s given, the greater the chance of medical advancements that combat the disease.
In the meantime, he’s had three more years to spend with his wife, two adult children and four grandchildren, while continuing to lead as normal a life as possible.
The only big change in their lives, he says, is toward simplification.
“For me, I live in the now. In the moment, as some people say. But for my family, I live for the future, trying to make things as simple as possible. You never know when things are going to take a turn.”
He and his wife Rosalie have sold their home, moved to a condo, “and got rid of a lot of stuff, although there is still more to get rid of. If we do it now, Rosalie won’t have to do it alone.” And they are down to one car.
He says he’s seen too many cases of a husband dying, and leaving his wife “with some challenges to clean up — ownership of the house, and dealing with the banks, which can be really terrible. In addition to the trauma of someone’s passing, the spouse is left having to deal with this chaos, which shouldn’t happen.”
That weighs on him — he doesn’t want to put his family in the same situation.
When he talks to them about dealing with the reality of his mortality, he says, “we don’t use the ‘death’ word very often, but we do talk simplification.”
Although he says repeatedly how fortunate he feels to be where he is, he has one regret.
When he was in his 40s, he began to lose his hearing from a genetic condition, and now, even with hearing aids, he struggles.
He had hoped to have cochlear implants — he had seen a doctor at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, and was looking forward to the surgery.
But then he was diagnosed with cancer, and because of his weakened immune system from chemotherapy, it had to be put off.
“I was really looking forward to it,” he says.
His mother had the surgery when it was still in its early stages. “It worked remarkably well,” he says, and she considered she was helping to lead the way for her son when his turn came.
He wants the surgery so he can do a better job of conversing with his grandchildren. The oldest is 11, and Cheriton says his hearing was good enough for them to talk and forge a relationship in the early years, but he fears he is not developing as strong a bond with the younger boys, because of his hearing problem.
“I’d love to get it done, but in the grand scheme of things, I still feel I’m very, very fortunate,” he says.
He still enjoys being on the hydro board. Last year, he had a transformer station named after him. Maybe not everyone’s goal in life, but after years of being part of the hydro board, he still finds the role gives him “a connection to the community in a very tangible way, working with very dedicated people on staff and on the board.”
He will again be one of the organizers of the Santa Claus Parade, but there will be challenges.
The parade committee lost two of its strongest volunteers this past year, chair Bruce Pospiech, who lost a long battle with cancer, and John Fryer, who died suddenly.
They were also two of Cheriton’s dearest friends, men he had known for decades. Pospiech was his best man — he’d known him since 1966 — and he met Fryer in 1970.
“In the last few years, Bruce and I worked very closely on the parade. And John was a great organizer — he looked after the marshalling, with about 35 volunteers. I didn’t expect to lose John. That came as a real shock.”
The committee, he says, also faces the challenge of “finding a new ride for Santa. The current sleigh has served us for about 15 years.”
They have had some designs submitted, “with some terrifically creative ideas, but now we have to figure out how to pay for it.”
Despite the challenges, he’s looking forward to the planning of another great parade, he says.
As for what the future holds for him, “you don’t ever know what’s going to happen. I didn’t expect to lose my friends John Fryer and Bruce Pospiech. I thought they would outlive me, and that didn’t happen.”
He says he’s never been told his cancer has spread beyond the pancreas, which he has taken as good news.
He has tests coming up soon, including a CT scan, which will give him more information of how well the chemotherapy is working, and whether it can be scaled back.
He has nothing but praise for all his local doctors and for the Walker Cancer Centre.
“I’ve been to Germany, to the Mayo Clinic and to Princess Margaret Hospital in pursuit of various ideas and alternatives, and I’ll tell you, there is nothing like the people at the Walker Cancer Centre. The standard of care there is out of this world. I can’t say how much I appreciate the care and support they have given me. It’s a tough job they do, but every single time they manage a smile and a few kind words.”
He also has tremendous respect and admiration for his oncologist, but she has given him one bit of advice he has had difficulty following.
“She recommended I give up alcohol,” he says. “She’s afraid of how it might interact with chemotherapy, and that it might damage my liver. But I like my wine, and told her I’m not ready to give it up.”
So the doctor suggested a compromise — she asked him if he could maybe restrict it to special occasions.
“I told her, every morning I wake up is a special occasion.”