What My Friendly Neighborhood Drug Dealer Taught Me About Cancer

May 13, 2014 | Updated Jul 13, 2014

It was June 25th, 1999. I had been in Vancouver for a day and a half... the start of the rest of my life. I had moved to a different country with a different currency, different sensibilities, and different cultures. I had my car and a trailer with all of my possessions parked on the top of some parking structure on a downtown street with a forgotten name. I was living with my dad in a hotel room behind the Vancouver Film School, my whole reason for moving to the Great White North in the first place.

I had researched some places online before the 2,300 mile drive, which we completed with 36 hours of drive time... including stops for gas and eating. To this day, I still don't know how A) we weren't ticketed at some point, and B) an Audi A4 pulling a 1500 pound trailer achieved such speeds. But I digress.

Apartment after apartment left me feeling dejected. I wanted something within walking distance of the school, but somewhere that didn't have laundry and room service.

And then I found the Van Horne.

I found myself at the top of historic Gastown, a street straight out of a movie set. Old buildings, a steam clock, a brick street and four Starbucks gave a warm feeling to me. I meandered down to the end, before making a right down by the Gassy Jack statue. As I got my bearings of where I was in my new city, I saw what looked to be a newer building with lease signs in front of it. I called the number and set up a walk-through within 20 minutes.

The Van Horne was a loft building. The listing agent showed me a couple of places with spectacular views but minimal space.

"Do you have anything bigger?" Boy, did I turn into a rube. Next thing you know, she shows me a 1,000 sq. ft. corner model with wrap-around windows and a ridiculous view of the mountains and the city. If I peeked around a couple of buildings, I even had a view of the water. And thanks to a crazy-friendly exchange rate, I was able to afford the monthly rent.

I raced back to the hotel and told my dad that I had found the place of my dreams. I walked him through Gastown, stopping at a couple of Starbucks on the way. When he saw the place, he was immediately impressed. "Great choice, Dan!"

That was until about thirty seconds before we were about to leave. A fracas that sounded like a drunken fight permeated from the street below. As my dad and I walked to the balcony, I realized that there was, indeed, a drunken fight occurring five floors down in the middle of the street.

My father quietly whispered to me, "When we bring your mother here next month, you better walk her through Gastown."

Now in 2014, it's not so much the case, but in 1999, the Van Horne was what I liked to call an amazing building in a shit neighborhood. It is almost directly across from a gathering area called Pigeon Park. What I had not known at the time I signed my lease was that Pigeon Park was notoriously the epicenter of western Canada for heroin, heroin prostitutes (the ones with no teeth and low, low prices), and physical violence. I cannot even begin to tell you how many nights I'd be working on a paper edit or a transcription at 3am, and I'd be snapped from my exhaustion by some woman screaming at her drugged out pimp, "You ruined my %(#$ing life!!!" And then she'd slug him with her purse which she'd hidden a brick in about ten minutes prior.

Good times.

Besides the fact that it was an amazing apartment (neighborhood be damned!), it was also only a seven minute walk from the film school. And yes, I had a car, but if you've ever been to Vancouver, you realize that trying to park legally for any length of time goes over like a pregnant pole vaulter. When they say "two hour parking," they really mean, "Jacques from Quebec will tow you at two hours and fourteen seconds. Your car can be found at the impound lot where you can retrieve it for $75 Canadian. Merci."

So walk to school I did... almost every morning. And almost every morning, I would be asked to buy drugs, and not in a very nice way.

"Skunk? Weed? Buds? SKUNK?!"

I almost felt like shouting, "BINGO!"

But like most people living in Vancouver, you realize that you start to ignore people. A lot. I stopped hearing it after a while. I just kept my head up, eyes forward, and didn't flinch. I ran the gauntlet five days a week, and after month one, I just stopped caring.

Apparently, this did not sit well with the dealers. They fully knew that I lived in the neighborhood, and would be for a while. So imagine my surprise when one of them called me out on my rudeness.

I was walking up the street when I heard my familiar, "SKUNK? WEED?! BUDS? SKUNK?!?!?!" I brushed past the guy when he screamed, "YOU COULD AT LEAST ACKNOWLEDGE MY EXISTENCE!"

Those seven words hit me like a thunderbolt. I was so shocked... and stunned... and in all honesty, shamed." I stopped and walked back up to him, whom I later learned was named David.

"You're right. And I'm sorry. No, I don't want to buy skunk, nor will I ever. But thank you for asking."

As I turned and walked away, I pictured this dude coming at me with a knife, or a needle, or even just a balled up fist. I dared not turn around. I just kept walking, and I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't scared.

But David never came after me. In fact, it was the opposite. He never asked me to buy drugs again. In fact, I think I may have only seen him a few times in the following months, and not at all in my last few living there.

In April of 2002, I was in the throes of battling testicular cancer. I was gaunt, sweating, and entirely hairless... eyelashes and eyebrows included. I saw myself every morning in the mirror, and I know that I looked like I was dying. In fact, once the lashes and brows went, it was the first time I looked at myself and thought I looked like a cancer patient. And nothing ever quite prepares you for that.

But what I didn't expect was that I was not the only one who didn't want to look at me. Often times, I'd wander around a grocery store to see if anything on any shelf looked remotely appetizing to my lack of desire to eat. And when I would meander the aisles, I often caught people averting their gaze. So not only did I not like seeing me, but others didn't, either.

And in one particular unnamed instance, during a particularly dark time in my treatment, David's face popped into my head. And his words echoed in my ears.

"At least you could acknowledge my existence."

There are times in every person's life where he or she asks, "What is my greatest fear?" And it changes, depending on what stage of life you find yourself. Now, my greatest fear would be taking the boys to Target, leaving them in the toy aisle while I picked up something one row over, and then returning to find them gone. It's happened once when they were a little younger. It felt like an instant heart attack.

They were fine, by the way. I found them in the Keurig/Weed Eater/Spanx department.

But before marriage or children, my greatest fear was to be viewed as irrelevant. Call it ego or something else, but I felt an almost unnatural desire to have a purpose. What I learned that morning while walking to school in Vancouver was that I was completely guilty of making someone feel my own greatest fear.

And when I was David three years later in the grocery store, I realized that my greatest fear felt, for just a moment, exactly how I thought it would.

I share all of this with you because I ask you just one favor: when you see someone battling, friend or complete stranger, young or old, wealthy or homeless, acknowledge their existence. Look the person in the eye and simply say "hello" as you walk past. It is one of the most powerful ways to make someone, anyone, everyone, feel like they are not invisible.

However, I would possibly recommend that if you see a bald person, especially a woman, don't just run up and ask her, "What kind are you battling?"

Because then this might happen...

"What do you mean what kind?"

"Cancer. I'm a survivor."

"I have alopecia. Dick."


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