It’s the question no one wants to ask, but the question that can’t be ignored.
So you ask it in a mumbly sort of voice, avoiding eye contact because the subject is so very, very uncomfortable.
“Have you thought about, you know, the worst case scenario?” Any bit of levity is instantly sucked out of the room as they stop to ponder the question.
It’s not like they haven’t thought about it hundreds, maybe thousands, of times over the last year.
But to say it out loud, to admit it’s a possibility.
That’s something different.
It seems like an eternity before one of them finally answers.
“I think about it all the time.”
• • •
The voice doesn’t belong to Kyle Lorteau, which is surprising, given all that has happened to him.
Diagnosed last year with an extremely rare form of childhood cancer, given slim odds of survival and now ploughing through 46 weeks of chemotherapy, the 17-year-old is the one you’d expect to be most preoccupied with worst-case scenarios.
Yet he seems least bothered by the idea of death.
It is parents Chad and Flora who’ve been consumed by the thought that Kyle might lose this battle with cancer.
Chad has refused to openly consider the possibility that his son might die, keeping a sunny outlook even as Kyle’s, and by extension his own, world has fallen apart. He surmised early on that it wasn’t going to help Kyle to be surrounded by negativity, so Chad bottled things up.
“Everything was so devastating to me, but where do you go and what do you say, knowing it does him no good if you’re messed up?” he said.
As Kyle’s weight dropped from 155 pounds down to a reed-thin 125, he stayed upbeat.
As Kyle leaned over a toilet bowl in the dark of night, puking his guts out, Chad stayed upbeat, fighting with every fibre of his being the urge to put his fist through a wall.
But such things aren’t meant to be bottled up, and Chad paid the price five months ago in the form of a mild heart-attack.
Flora tried to be positive.
She really did.
In the daytime she could stay busy with work and keep her mind occupied.
But her nights were haunted by thoughts she couldn’t escape. When she wasn’t sneaking into Kyle’s room to check his breathing she was lying awake in bed, staring at the ceiling.
Sleep offered no respite.
“He (Chad) denied so much, refusing to believe the thought of having to bury a child, but that thought was in my nightmares, and I’d wake up screaming because I’d already planned his funeral in my dreams,” she said. “I’d be crying in bed thinking he was already gone.”
Whether from teenage bravado or well-executed denial, Kyle said the idea of dying rarely entered his head.
Through it all, the diagnosis and surgery and chemo, the most pressing matter wasn’t whether he’d make it through alive.
He worried about his eyebrows.
“I’ve seen the pranks where those kids get their eyebrows shaved off at a party and I was thinking, ‘No way! That’s not going to be me,’” he exclaimed. “It’s weird I guess, but I was scared to death about the eyebrows.”
He needn’t have worried.
The eyebrows were spared the ravages of chemotherapy.
But each week the IV drip fed toxins into him provided something new to think about, a gut-churning reminder that eyebrows were truly the least of his worries.
Kyle went into the process with a head full of thick and curly hair, only to find it falling out a few weeks into treatment.
He scratched his head and saw hair on his hand.
It’s not like he didn’t know it was coming, but it was jarring nonetheless.
“I was like, ‘Oh. This is how it happens,’” Kyle said.
“He went into the bathroom to have a shower and all of a sudden it was, ‘Mom! My hair’s falling out,’” Flora added. “I looked at it, and then I went to my bedroom and started bawling. That’s when it got real.”
Going into chemo, the Lorteaus were handed dossiers on all the various drugs and all their various side effects.
Hair loss was well known and expected, but Flora didn’t become a neurotic mess until she flipped through a binder filled with page after page of nasty information.
On their own, drugs like Vincristine and Cyclo were bad enough.
But Kyle’s aggressive cancer required aggressive treatment. His 46 week regimen was four longer than the usual, with more drugs involved.
His doctors felt they had no other choice but to throw everything they had at the cancer.
“The first two weeks it was just Vincristine, but then it was that one plus two others (Cyclo and Dactinomysinn) and they all just drained me to the point where I didn’t even want to move,” Kyle said. “When I had all three I stayed at the hospital two nights, and every two hours, they’d wake me up to take me to the washroom. There was puking and it was just awful. So, hearing I had cancer, that sucked. The surgery sucked. But the worst feeling for me was just being in a hospital for any length of time. I can’t even breathe in hospitals.”
Hospital smells can make anyone’s stomach queasy, but for chemo patients the odors wafting up and down the hallways are nearly unbearable.
When the lunch and dinner trays started making the rounds, he demanded, strongly, that his door be shut.
His appetite sapped, Kyle sent his mom to Safeway with an order that made sense in his head only to find the delivered product nausea-inducing.
“What they do with some people when smells make them nauseous is they give them different flavours of Jolly Ranchers, like root beer,” Kyle said. “So you don’t feel sick because of bad smells, but you end up hating root beer. I didn’t want to do that because I really like root beer.”
What made any of this even remotely tolerable was the people at Children’s Hospital — doctors, nurses and staff committed to taking a real bad situation and making it as good as possible.
The biggest reality check you could ever have, Chad said, is visiting the oncology ward on a regular basis and witnessing first-hand the life-and-death struggle being waged there by children who should never have to face such things.
“The people there, they make you smile in your deepest, darkest moments,” Flora added. “They make you feel good. They make your kid feel good and they make you feel safe.”
And they arrange for you to go to professional basketball games. On Oct. 6 of last year the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors met for a pre-season National Basketball Association game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.
Kyle and eight other patients sat wide-eyed on the sidelines gawking at the little Canadian point guard with the Suns, a two time league MVP.
Steve freakin Nash!
“I watched everything he did in his warmup, because he does the same three or four things over and over again,” Kyle said with a mile-wide grin. “And I stole one of his things for my warmup. He kept practising his floater shot, and I stole it, because it was pretty effective that night.”
The Suns lost the game 129-78, a disappointing result for the Victoria native.
Nash might have felt better had he known how much hope and inspiration he’d provided to a teenager who desperately needed a lift.
Kyle went back to Chilliwack that night filled with optimism. He grabbed his basketball the next day and practiced floaters, picturing himself as No. 13 in the purple jersey.
As he danced past Spurs and Lakers in his daydreams, for a few blessed moments, he was able to forget.
Five days later he was back in the hospital, sullenly staring at an IV drip that seemed to silently taunt.
Nine months to go kid.
Cancer’s not through with you yet.
This is the third in a four-part series that wraps up in the Thursday, June 30 edition of the Chilliwack Progress sports section.