Life Beyond Cancer

Patient Expert
Courtesy of Stephen Wilson

Stephen Wilson is a lucky man, and he knows it. The 68-year-old retired marketing writer and radio journalist survived his advanced bladder cancer and emerged a healthier man, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. He even found romance and a wife to share his new life.

“Having cancer changed my life in a very positive way,” he says. “It allowed me to change my lifestyle in such a way that I’m actually today far healthier than I have been in probably 30 years.”

Wilson discovered he had cancer almost by accident. He had no symptoms in the years leading up to his 2013 diagnosis, except frequent urination. “I’d go to a movie, and I wouldn’t be able to make it through the whole movie without getting up to go to the washroom,” he says. “But being an older male, I chalked that up to having an enlarged prostate.”

He might never have figured it out if he hadn’t needed cataract surgery, which required him to get an OK from his family doctor. Wilson hadn’t seen a primary care doctor in years. So when he found a doctor, he agreed to have a battery of tests to assess his overall health.

An Out-of-Body Experience

When the doctor told him there were abnormal cells positive for malignancy in his urine, Wilson was stunned. An ultrasound showed thickening on the walls of the bladder that was suspicious. “The doctor said, ‘I think you have bladder cancer,’” Wilson says. “I remember walking back to work and having this kind of out-of-body experience where I was floating above myself looking down at myself walking on the sidewalk thinking, ‘That’s not me. This really isn’t me that this happened to.’”

Wilson had a cystoscopy, which showed there were tumors all over his bladder wall, so then he had a transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT) to remove them. But his doctor found there were too many tumors to be able to remove them all. The pathology report, however, seemed relatively positive: high-grade bladder cancer, T1, stage I.

Because there were so many tumors, Wilson’s doctor thought it would be better to take his bladder out and create a neobladder using part of his intestine. “It seemed to me that it was the best option because it’s the most natural diversion for urine, and my surgeon felt that I was healthy enough to have it,” he says.

Wilson joked with the surgeons as he was wheeled toward the operating room for the eight-hour surgery. If he had to have cancer, the outcome was not too bad, he thought.

But after the surgery, he got another, more frightening pathology report. “They looked at all the stuff they took out, and it turned out that my cancer was actually stage IV,” Wilson says. “This happens sometimes because when they go in and do a TURBT, they can’t take out all of the tumors, but they take out a representative grouping of them, and probably those ones were not muscle-invasive.”

Wilson was referred to an oncologist, but for some reason, the appointment got delayed. He recalls, “When I finally got there, the oncologist said, ‘It’s actually too late. We like to do chemo immediately after surgery. Because of that, I can’t say that it would really be of any benefit.’ I went pale when I heard that.” The doctor also told Wilson he had a 15 percent chance of surviving five years.

No Smoking or Bad Food

“Traditionally, I’ve had a somewhat pessimistic outlook on things,” Wilson says. “But when she said 15 percent survival rate, I had two thoughts. One was, ‘It’s better than zero.’ And two, ‘What can I do to be one of the 15 percent, because obviously there are people who fall in that category.’ So I dedicated myself to finding out all of the things that could potentially bring back the cancer. Things like smoking, eating too much bad food—foods high in fats, sugars, and salt—lack of exercise, stress, and I committed myself to eliminating all of those things from my life.”

Wilson decided to retire early to get out of his stressful workplace. He started eating better, eventually becoming a vegan, and began exercising. “Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I did no exercise whatsoever. I worked in an office and was sedentary. I ate tons of fast food—McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and pizza every night. I smoked. But everything needed to change or, cancer or not, I would have had tons of health problems.”

His mind-set also shifted. “Everything changed in a far more positive way for me, and it’s like a feedback cycle. The more negative you are about things, the more that feeds back into your body and has negative effects,” he says. “And the more positive you are, the more relaxed you are—the more you don’t really care about stuff anymore that used to bug you—that feeds back in a positive way. You have to let go of a lot of things that irritated you before in your life.”

Finding Romance and Building a Garden

After the surgery and recovery, Wilson met his wife, Rongqing Wang. “The first time we met, I made it clear that I had cancer and what my limitations are,” he says. “She was very impressed with my openness and honesty. She is incredibly supportive and has become my biggest cheerleader.”

The couple joined a gym and go nearly every day. Wilson runs on a treadmill for 35 minutes, and does muscle-building exercises for his arms, legs, and abdomen. “We eat lots of beans, peas, green vegetables, and pretty much any fruit,” he says.

When Wilson and his wife moved into a bungalow, he also took up gardening. “That was another thing that I did when I was diagnosed—I started working outside in the dirt,” Wilson says. “I’d inherited from my mother this sense that there’s spirituality in nature.” He enjoys creating flower beds and vegetable gardens and just getting dirt under his fingernails. In May 2019, he got the good news that he had passed the five-year survival mark and was still cancer-free.

Wilson now enjoys talking to newly diagnosed bladder cancer patients. “I tell them my story, how I overcame the challenges, and not to be discouraged,” he says. “It’s been very satisfying for me to have people say, ‘I’m glad I talked to you because it’s made me feel so much better.’”

“Sometimes people get so tied up with the fear of dying of cancer that it immobilizes them,” Wilson adds. “It prevents you from enjoying whatever life you have left.”

He advises people not to blame themselves or dwell on what might have caused their cancer. “You have to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘Okay, that was the past; what am I going to do now?’” he says. “And then, do everything possible to live a healthy life and to retain a positive attitude.”