Todd’s mother

The other side of cancer

Family discovers long term effects of caring for loved ones with terminal illness.

When Todd Strange entered a room, everyone knew.

If it wasn’t his physique that drew attention — six-foot-three and covered in tattoos — it was his voice.

Loud, goofy and always cracking jokes, he’s “that guy you always noticed if he was there, and if he wasn’t there, you definitely knew, too,” said his wife, Ashley.

For the last two years, all of his friends and family have noticed his absence.

•••

Todd often used his size to his advantage.

Nicknamed the defender of the meek and weak, it wasn’t unusual for him to end up in hockey fights or bar fights while trying to protect the little guy.

“I call him my angel with tattered wings,” his mother, Chris, said with a laugh.

It was that same chivalry that sparked Ashley’s curiosity.

She met Todd while floating down the Penticton River channel in the summer of 2006.

“We talked for the entire time,” she recalled, with a smile.

“And I was just like, ‘This guy is amazing.’”

There was something intriguing about the 19-year-old, and Ashley, a recent HD Stafford graduate, couldn’t help but notice the deep scars along his neck and his chest — battle wounds from a fight, it turns out.

This one with cancer.

“He said to me, ‘don’t pity me, don’t feel sorry for me,’” Ashley said.

“If cancer ever came up, that’s how he made sure people would feel about him. He didn’t want people to feel sorry for him.”

When he was 18 years old, Todd was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma, a form of cancer in the lymph nodes of the body.

It presented as a lump in his neck, but was primary in his sternum and bronchi.

Between October, 2005 and November, 2006 he underwent 12 chemotherapy treatments and was declared cancer-free.

“He just seemed so strong and he wanted everyone to think that he was strong and he could protect everyone,” Ashley said.

“I guess I never thought that his cancer could come back or would come back, just because he was so tough.”

It wasn’t supposed to come back, but it did.

At a routine checkup 18 months later, doctors informed Todd that not only had the cancer returned, he also needed a stem cell transplant.

“I was panicking,” Ashley said.

“I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t know what I was going to say.”

She arrived at Todd’s parents’ house that night and found him sitting in the living room, completely silent.

“I came and sat on the chair with him and he just started bawling his eyes out,” she said.

“I think that’s the first time I realized, ‘Whoa, this is real.’”

Todd immediately went for rescue chemotherapy and in April 2009, began the transplant process.

He had six phases of strong chemotherapy — so powerful they nearly killed him — followed by a reintroduction of stem cells to kick-start his system.

Remarkably, he barely missed a day of work.

Todd started a new job at Davidson Brothers Mechanical in Burnaby the same day he found out his cancer had returned.

“It was so amazing and incredible and kind of scary that the whole time he was going through chemo, he just kept going to work,” Ashley said.

“He would take one day off, and then he would go back.”

Afraid that people would treat him differently, Todd didn’t even tell his boss he was sick. His father, Les, eventually called his foreman.

“I remember so many mornings where he was throwing up and he still went to work,” Ashley said.

Through all of this, he finished his plumbing apprenticeship and earned his journeyman ticket on Oct. 15, 2010.

•••

Todd’s dream was to be a firefighter, like his dad, who was a Burnaby firefighter for nearly 40 years.

He was well on his way, earning a trade for his resume and working on his transplant recovery.

Until a small spot was discovered on his lung.

It was cancer, again, and this time the treatment was drastic.

The lung would have to be removed.

It was the first time Todd’s spirit was truly crushed.

“When he woke up and he asked the question about his lung, he just sobbed,” Chris said. “He was so upset.”

With only one lung, he would never be a firefighter. He couldn’t pass the physical tests to get in.

It was heartbreaking for Les as well.

“Les was always so strong for Todd but he couldn’t deal with that, “ Chris said.

“He said to me, ‘I spent my whole career going into chaos to create calm, and I can’t create calm in my own family.’

“He couldn’t fix it.”

But Todd was determined to live.

Just 14 days after surgery, he was discharged from the hospital.

He didn’t want to be “Todd with cancer.” He just wanted to be Todd.

To this day, most of his friends still don’t know the details of what he went through.

“He would ask me not to tell people because he didn’t want anyone to look at him as weak, and that was his biggest fear; that people would think he was weak, and that Todd wouldn’t be able to protect them,” Ashley said.

This put Ashley in a difficult position.

At times she felt more like his nagging mother than his girlfriend, and she had no one to confide in, as Todd refused to let anyone know what was really going on.

Emotionally, it was pushing her to her limits.

Working as a delivery driver, she remembers days where she would cry the entire drive to her clients, fix her makeup, make her delivery, then cry the whole way back to the office.

“I was so emotional I could not hold it together at work,” she said. “I felt like I was breaking down every day.”

“Even though I’m not the one who’s sick, I felt a really heavy weight.”

•••

After each episode of cancer, the Stranges would come together for family holidays in Mexico.

It became a place of celebration for Todd. Not only was it where he proposed to Ashley in January 2011, it was also where they planned their wedding.

Things were going well for him at this time. He recovered from his lung surgery and bought his first condo with Ashley.

That was, until two weeks before the wedding: The cancer returned, more aggressive than ever.

This time the doctor gave him chemotherapy in a pill form. The side effects had a two-week delay, he was told.

Todd and Ashley were married on the beach in Puerto Vallarta on May 7, 2012.

The chemotherapy hit him May 8.

It crippled Todd.

“I feel like that was the last time he ever really walked was our wedding day,” Ashley said.

“I was really scared because I saw his body give up all of a sudden. That was the weakest I saw him.

“It was just really hard to accept that it was all happening, especially at that time.”

Bed-ridden at home, Todd wouldn’t let anyone see him, except Ashley.

Even his two sisters, Jaclyn and Kirstie, were not allowed to stop by.

Ashley became his full-time nurse, yet had no medical training or knowledge about how to properly care for him.

“It got to a point where I was so drained,” she said. “I had absolutely nothing left inside of me.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just doing whatever I could from my heart.”

She was by Todd’s side 24/7.  He would tell her vivid dreams of what their future lives would be like, where they would live, how many children they would have.

“I started to believe that it was possible for us to have a normal life,” Ashley said.

“We all thought he was going to survive.”

But in reality, he was dying at home.

“Basically we were trapped in a prison for a long time,” Ashley said.

“He lost so much weight. I remember one week I think he only ate an orange — the whole week. And I would beg him, I would be crying on my knees begging him to eat.”

She begged him to go to the hospital, too, but he always refused.

Todd hated the hospital.

“I remember waking up at night, or not being able to fall asleep at night, and just staring at him, worried if he was still breathing,” she said.

“I was so fearful that he was going to die in the house with me there alone.”

Finally, she reached her breaking point.

After months of being by Todd’s side, Ashley left him alone in the house for 24 hours.

When she returned, he agreed to go to the hospital.

He died five days after being admitted on May 1, 2013 — one week shy of their first wedding anniversary.

He was 26 years old.

“When Todd died, everything died with him — the whole future and vision that he created,” Ashley said.

“It didn’t just feel like I was losing him. I felt like I was losing my future, my children, my whole life.”

•••

Today, Todd’s family is continuing to heal and part of that process is helping other families dealing with cancer.

There are many government programs available to help caregivers of terminally ill loved ones, but Ashley and the Stranges were not aware of them at the time.

“This has already come and passed for us, but someone might be just starting to go through it in the early stages,” Ashley said.

“It’s really important for them to know and realize that there are resources out there and there are people to talk to.”

Her hope is that no one else will have to endure the isolation that she felt in those final months with Todd.

“Sometimes, what helps the most is knowing that you’re not alone,” Ashley said.

“Because feeling alone is probably one of the worst feelings you could ever feel, and there were many times I felt alone.

“I didn’t know how to talk to people and I didn’t know how to deal with things. I was young, of course, but also at the same time I wanted to be strong.

“I thought that being strong meant you just have to face it and deal with it, but what I’m learning now is that people with courage are able to talk about things.”

Throughout the process, she has also become passionate about cancer research.

Ashley spent hours online researching different methods of treatment for Todd, and believes a cure will be found one day.

“We need more money put towards cancer research because there has to be more than just chemo, there has to be more answers than that,” she said. “Chemo is destroying people. It doesn’t just destroy the cancer, it also destroys everything else that’s good inside of you.”

The Strange family is now giving back through events like the Terry Fox Run, which is happening in two locations in Langley on Sept. 20.

This is the second year in a row that Ashley, Chris and both sides of their families are coming together for the run.

They want to create a legacy for Todd, and they see many similar characteristics of strength and determination between him and Terry Fox.

“Even though Todd’s gone it’s not like cancer is over,” Ashley said.

“Cancer is still going.”

•••

Terry Fox Run Sept. 20

LANGLEY CITY

Where? Douglas Park, 20550 Douglas Cres.

When? Registration 8:30 a.m.; run 10 a.m.

Length? Choice of 1 km, 5 km or 10 km

LANGLEY TOWNSHIP

Where? Walnut Grove Community Centre, 8889 Walnut Grove Dr.

When? Registration 8:30 a.m.; run 9 a.m.

Length? Choice of 5 km or 10 km

See www.terryfox.org for more info.

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