Warrior Series: Tanner Whidden’s CANcer Journey

This summer marks three years since I underwent two ten hour surgeries and 28 rounds of radiation to get rid of the huge cancerous spinal cord tumour that was killing me slowly.

The surgeries left me paralyzed from my chest down.

I have learned a lot in three years. I have gone from wearing diapers and retraining my bladder and bowel to being able to travel independently to 3 of my life-long friends weddings.  With the help of some amazing friends, I have travelled from my home in northern British Columbia to Manitoba, Kelowna, Nashville and Costa Rica. I have gone on a hunt of a lifetime with my buddy, Myles, in Saskatchewan. I’ve gotten closer to my mom who has been my rock through this whole situation, and I have had daily check ins from my brothers or Dad.

Through my CANcer journey, I have shared the brighter sides of my spinal cold injury, the small wins, the legs moving the tiny steps. BUT… what I wasn’t honest about is the utter devastation this injury has brought into my life. The sleepless nights. The chronic pain. The depression and anxiety. The overwhelming thoughts of suicide that seem to grow stronger as I get longer into my injury, wondering what it would be like to ease all my pain with the pull of a trigger. My eyes well up with tears even writing this down.

I’ve spent so many hours and days hiding from the pain, living isolated in my house. Cancelling plans due to pain as it reaches 9/10 levels. I’ve worked tirelessly over the last three years to try and get back on my feet. Eight trips to Reyu in Edmonton all on my own dime trying to desperately be the “Old Tanner.” Now I am working on the acceptance that I will be in a chair for the rest of my life.

I can’t explain what it’s like to be an able bodies person for 33 years and then to immediately join the “disabled” community. To be treated differently because of my disability. Being stared at and left out of invites and being seemingly unattractive to the opposite sex. I went from making $130,000 a year to being discriminated against at my last job for being white and disabled. I quit for that reason as well as they wouldn’t come to the table for more money than $12,000 a year.

On this most recent trip I went to a seating clinic. Their suggestion- a new chair, cushion and bed mattress to the tune of $10,500. As my muscles deteriorate, the pain from sitting daily gets too intense. I’m back on heavy doses of Advil and Tramadol to try and get through the day.

Everywhere I turn it feels impossible to get ahead. With medical equipment and supplies eating up most of my money on a monthly basis I am on the hunt now for a new work possibility to try and get back to earning a living wage.

By the numbers people with disabilities are 30% less likely to get hired for a job and if we do we will receive 15-20% less of a wage than an able body person. Recently I blocked my social media accounts so HR professionals couldn’t search me to find out I’m in a chair.

Did you know that people with disabilities are the biggest minority in the world? Neither did I. Until I joined them.

To everyone reading this, take a good look at your life and ask yourself what it would be like if this happened to you or someone in your family. I feel that’s the only way people will treat us with equality. For them to know that they are one wrong turn or slip down the stairs from also joining us.

So please be kind to people with disabilities. Don’t treat us differently. Treat us like human beings, the same way you would treat anyone else, or the way you would like to be treated.

My mental health has been struggling recently as I’ve been dealing with chronic pain lots of appointments and MRIs and I have a badly torn illiacus muscle that hurts to sit on. Makes it tough to get away from the pain. That’s the thing about cancer even once you’re done beating it the trauma and pain lasts.

This Spring I got some great news- there is “No evidence of tumour reoccurrence, or new lesions identified.” Talk about a weight off my shoulders- I don’t talk about it much, but before each MRI it weighs on me. I have learned this is labelled cancer anxiety and many survivors fear the cancer returning.

These days, I am working on more of a functional recovery. Coming to terms with being in a wheelchair for life takes time. I’ve fought my ass off- literally- to try and regain my old abilities. Lately I’ve been taking a different approach- having fun and enjoying life more for what it is, trying to live in the moment.

The only thing I can do now is keep working at getting stronger. This is a lifelong journey for me and I have to remember that.

Slowly but surely, I chip away at my recovery. Progress, not perfection is so very important for me to practice and remember in all of this.

I’m working on that little thing called acceptance, knowing now acceptance doesn’t mean I have to quit grinding forward, I just have to adjust the sails a little. I’ve been working so hard over the last 2 years to get out of this chair. After some time, I’ve realized how big of a part my chair will play in my life.

My life before CANcer and the resulting spinal cord injury from surgery that saved my life has forever altered my life. Thank you to everyone for your support and remember – no matter what you’re going through, keep grinding- there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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