Longtime cancer patient Randy Chester embraces the unknown with a smile

2017-10-16  |  Guest Bloggers |  Posted by: Kim Honey

I first spied Randy Chester sitting in his walker, having a cigarette outside the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre Lodge on Jarvis Street in November. He had the biggest, roundest, tortoiseshell glasses I have ever seen on a human being, which magnified his blue eyes and made his body, skinny as a teenage boy’s, seem even smaller.

(Randy knits a shawl while waiting for an appointment.)

I walked to work a little lighter, amused by his bon mots and his boldness in indulging in a nicotine fix outside a building full of cancer patients. Not exactly the best advertisement, but that’s Randy. Where there’s fun to be poked, his index finger is sticking out.

The next day, the conversation began with a compliment on his Miu Miu glasses. His ripped jeans, rolled up to flaunt mismatched socks, were paired with a riotous paisley shirt and bow tie of the red persuasion, an olive sweater and a pair of suspenders. On top was a military-type coat, and a scarf that he had knit himself. 

I walked away, chuckling. What a character! I promised to stop by and visit again. Within a week we were friends; within two months I promised I would go on his bucket-list road trip, which involves driving a rented RV from Toronto to a Catholic monastery in Quebec City, where he spent eight years with the Servite Order.

You may recognize Randy from your travels at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, perhaps from a ward, or from the blood clinic, or the CT scan waiting room or, more likely, the GI clinic. The 61-year-old roves the corridors like a cancer rock star, greeting patients and staff he’s met over the past two years. But the most astonishing thing about Randy is he has been living with cancer for 18 years. He’s had 10 surgeries and 52 rounds of radiation. He has a pacemaker and a defibrillator in his chest, suffered though pancreatitis and c. difficile, and, last year, his bowel almost ruptured. “We nearly lost him,” says his best friend, Brent, who goes by one name, like Cher or Bono, and who will also be in that RV when we hit the road this fall. When Brent insisted on taking him to emergency, Randy insisted on walking.

After his brush with death, Randy decided he didn’t care what anyone thought anymore. “The cancer freed me,” he says. “It gave me a different sense of what’s important.” 

He decided to take only the good from life, and leave the bad. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry or frustrated, as he tries to keep his appointments and prescriptions and doctors straight. For a dyslexic, it takes extra effort. But his artistic talent and innate intelligence allow him to shine; though it was not easy, Randy left the monastery to attend Concordia University in Montreal, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine art. 

When I suggest he’s had more than his fair share of adversity, he shrugs. “They are all experiences. You can choose to make it negative or make it funny.”

Randy has a rare disease called Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia Type 2A, or MEN2A, and only about 1 in 30,000 people have it. It is the result of a mutation in a gene that regulates the endocrine system, and almost everyone with MEN2, 2A or 2B will get medullary thyroid cancer. That happened to Randy when he was 42. 

The doctors in his hometown of Pembroke, Ont., thought he had had a stroke. But when they did head and neck scans, they saw the tumours. They removed the thyroid and parathyroid and lymph nodes, but the cancer was still lurking, and the tumours would grow back.  After exhausting specialists in Ottawa and Kingston, he pressed for a referral to Dr. Monika Krzyzanowska, a medical oncologist who specializes in the endocrine system and a researcher who studies access to health care, at Princess Margaret.

(Randy pictured with Dr. Krzyzanowska)

People gravitate to Randy because he exudes light and goodness, not to mention fun. “You have an aura about you,” Brent observes, as Randy sits in the waiting room, knitting yet another scarf, which he will no doubt give away. “It’s in your eyes, and your demeanour and your personality.”

Randy is on a chemo drug, vandetanib, used to prolong life in advanced thyroid cancer cases, and he couldn’t be happier. “Wherever they want to send me, I’ll go. I’m a voyageur. If you can scare me more than cancer, go ahead. The unknown doesn’t scare me, because as cancer patients, we live with the unknown.”

He knows the cancer could win, he just doesn’t know when. And that’s a good thing, because he’s got a lot of birds to feed, a lot of second-hand clothing stores to sift through, a lot of librarians to charm, a lot of cafes to visit and a lot more Toronto to explore with his walker. He’s certainly got many more hellos in him. So next time you see Randy Chester, make sure you stop and spend some time with him. He’ll make you glad to be alive, just like he is.

This story was first published in the Spring 2017 edition of UHN’s Gastro Intestinal Newsletter.