Story by Corporal Michael Jaszczszyn
Introduction by Erin Flanagan Stashko
I’d like to introduce to you, Corporal Michael Jaszczszyn of the Grande Prairie, Alberta, RCMP detachment. Imagine – Being told at only 25 years of age that you will end up in palliative care from cancer, because ‘there’s nothing anyone can do for you.’ Now imagine losing the sight in one eye but feeling ecstatic anyway because you woke up and are alive. And through that significant loss of eyesight in one eye comes a tremendous gain: An appreciation for life that quickly emerges to a strong desire to ‘right’ the wrong in a world fraught with inconsistencies, where rules and regulations can be rigid (even when ineffective) and can also be seemingly unchangeable.
The change was needed to transform an entire RCMP system, an administrative system that regulates police officers’ deployment in the field. Told that he couldn’t work in the field – only office work would be allowed because of his loss of vision in one eye, Corporal Jaszczszyn wasn’t taking ‘no’ to his request to work as an active on-duty RCMP officer in the field, for an answer. Called Corporal Jazz, fittingly so, as Michael has a strong rhythm/zest for life – he set out to live outside the box. He didn’t just ‘try.’ He ‘did.’ And although he succeeded in time due to his diligence to pore over every detail, there was gripping emotional pain and trauma along the journey.
Michael’s gumption not only served him well, but it also paved the path for others with similar situations. Corporal Jazz knew that a ‘one size fits all cases’ was not an answer, and in the years to come, officers and their unique situations will now be independently assessed in a more effective manner. Corporal Michael Jaszczszyn was the force behind this change in policy.
Corporal Jaszczszyn is a gifted writer who, when I initially asked if I could interview him and write a story to be posted to ‘The Heroes Project’ website, readily agreed. I quickly recognized that his voice is a powerful one and he is a talented writer with an ability to fully describe his life-altering experience. Therefore, I asked him if he would mind sharing his story in his own words.
His story is compelling – intense and rife with detail as though Michael is reliving his experience. It will be presented to you in a four-part series. Corporal Jazz displays amazing strength, courage, and tenacity throughout his experience.
When many people in his situation would crumble and walk away several times over, Michael chose to dig both feet in, firmly. He didn’t stop digging until he got the answers that he knew were right, and he knew he had to fight for his right to continue to serve so that others could also follow in his footsteps.
The first part of the series describes in exceptional detail, all aspects of the medical diagnosis, including the impact on Michael, the potential impact to family and friends, the prognosis, and the actual outcome after a multitude of efforts to help save Michael’s life.
In the second part, Michael will explore adapting to his loss of vision in one eye, and his new self!
In the third part of this series, Michael will describe his ongoing battle to get back into RCMP fieldwork – the fight was extensive, and he never showed signs of considering giving up. He knew his calling was to be out in the field, and it is where his heart is.
The fourth part will reflect on getting back to work and accomplishing goals that were previously considered to be impossible for someone with a loss of vision in one eye. Michael seemed to have a motto – ‘Never say never.’
With every step backward he was forced to take, Michael forged ahead. He succeeded to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt, the erroneous way of the cookie-cutter standard policies of an entire system, He changed the collective mindset of many individuals and he had to get through to each of them, much like in the TV show American Gladiators, where every turn is fraught with peril and every move you make is critical. One of the most important takeaways from his experience is to never burn bridges – his personal policy served him well throughout his experience.
Here is Corporal Michael Jaszczszyn’s personal journey, written by Michael himself:
The story is broken into three sections, each of which has its own unique challenges. The commonality amongst them however is that each lasted for an extensive period of time. It wasn’t as though any portion was a single brief intense moment, but rather a sustained lengthy challenge in which I felt under constant pressure.
The first portion is the diagnosis itself. It started when I began to have a small blur in my right eye. At first, the blur was a small circle the size of a pencil eraser head. Over a period of several months, it grew to the point that everything I saw out of my right eye was blurry. During this time, I had been seeing specialists who eventually put me through a CT scan and found a tumor growing in my optic nerve. This ultimately led to a number of treatments that increased in intensity the first of which was surgery. The procedure was meant to remove a small portion of the tumor for analysis. Once this was completed, I recovered and returned to work in a few weeks. The decision was made to monitor the tumor closely and see what happened. Going through this process was somewhat frightening thought I had immense confidence in my doctors and as such the reality of what I was about to go through had not yet struck home.
A number of months later at a follow-up appointment my tumor appeared to be growing at an alarming rate. It was at this point that my oncologist informed me that I would have to go through radiation. I was also given a 5-year survival rate of 75% which I believed to be pretty good. When I asked what my 10-year survival rate would be it was told around 55%. I was mistakenly under the belief that surviving longer decreased the odds of dying. I learned that with this particular type of cancer as time goes on survivability decreases. It was at this point that I felt like I was hit by a truck. I had no idea how I would live my life or what I would do. I also wasn’t expecting the news, so I made the mistake of going to the appointment alone. I completely broke down in the small room in which I sat. I asked more questions about the situation I was in and wrote down all of the answers. This ended up being a good idea as days later I had almost no recollection of what I was told. After I eventually composed myself and had no further questions to ask, I left. I went to the parking lot and cried in my truck for nearly an hour before I felt ready to drive home. I eventually had another surgery not long after my prognosis was delivered. Following the surgery, I had to recover until I was strong enough to withstand the radiation that I had to undergo.
“It’s a war within yourself that never goes away.“
Several weeks after my surgery I began daily radiation. I was treated with a fairly high dose of external beam radiation for a period of 45 days. Aside from the constant anxiety over how my life would change the pain I was in increased significantly. My face was in so much pain that I couldn’t lay on one side. Being someone who tosses and turns when he tries to fall asleep this made it exceptionally difficult to do so. The skin on my face was also very tender. I still recall waking up one morning being half asleep and taking a shower. Once I got out, I wiped my face with a towel (instead of gently dabbing it as I normally do). This caused a horribly sharp pain to shoot up through the entire right side of my face. It hurt so much that my knees buckled, and I almost collapsed. Eventually, though I completed the treatment and then had to wait to see if it would work. This was very different than the first treatment I had which solely comprised of surgery. I felt far more vulnerable after this one. I felt weighed down and as though I was constantly under the barrel of a gun. As though something horrible was going to happen.
Unsurprisingly, a number of weeks later something did. The pain of the radiation was supposed to dissipate. In a sense it did, the feeling of the burn and the raw skin healed however I began to get increasingly painful headaches. I was ingesting Tylenol and Advil like skittles and eventually, even those did nothing. I contacted my doctor who put me on a very high dose of prednisone which is a strong anti-inflammatory steroid. This drug worked as advertised, unfortunately so did the side effects. I gained a significant amount of water weight and couldn’t stop eating. A short time later I gained roughly 30-40lbs. I also developed acne like I was a teenager again and also lost muscle mass from the atrophy caused by the drug. This was made worse by the inability to work out due to the headaches.
Eventually, though, the headaches subsided. In the state that I was in, I took some time off work and traveled home to Ontario to see my family. While there I began to notice minute symptoms. A tingle in my forehead that would come and go, a minute amount of pain would slip through. I felt as though I was being hypersensitive but decided to call my oncologist anyway. Upon describing those symptoms and others he suggested I go to the hospital. I was reluctant to go in but did so anyway. The doctor I saw in the emergency department could not detect anything wrong with me, but I pleaded with him to allow me to see a specialist. He conceded to my request and told me to return the following day to see the ophthalmology resident. The resident examined me briefly and after a few minutes moved some of the equipment out of the way that she had been using. Her face was passive, almost pleasant. I was expecting to hear that I had some uncommon side effect from radiation that could readily be resolved with one treatment option or another. I did not expect to be told that the back four quadrants of my eye were bleeding and that the tumor was growing to the point that my eye was physically being pushed on.
I was immediately booked into the hospital and had been visited by numerous specialists giving me one update or another. My parents came to see me at this point as did my best friend. The timing of what happened next ultimately worked out for the best, though did little to diminish the trauma of the news I was about to receive.
My parents went downstairs to grab a coffee while my best friend remained in the hospital room. A neurosurgeon walked in and sat down to inform me of the exact prognosis with which I was faced. I was told that I had a high-grade optic nerve glioma, I would survive the surgery to mitigate the symptoms but would go into palliative care. This rocked me back. It was not what I was expecting to hear. I somehow remained composed at this point and began pressing the neurosurgeon for additional information. She readily responded to my questions but hesitated when I asked how long I had to live. I continued to press until I forced an answer from her. When asked how long she quietly responded “two”. I clarified “two years”? “Yes”. At this point, my composure began to crack. “What’s the high end of how long I have” in an increasingly desperate voice. “What’s the low end?!” At this point, my voice was full of desperation and panic. “Two months”. At this point, I could barely get any words out and completely broke down.
I couldn’t think, I couldn’t process anything, it was all I could do just to breathe. Shortly thereafter she left. My friend tried to console me though I barely heard his voice. A couple of minutes later I came to the realization that my parents would be back at any moment. Coupled with this realization was the fact that if they saw me the way I was they would ask questions and eventually I would tell them. I did not want them to know. I couldn’t deal with my own pain as it was. I didn’t want them to go through what I was experiencing. I immediately stopped myself. I still don’t know-how. It’s as though I just became a rock. Emotionless and still. I looked at my friend and said “Not a word to my parents when they get back, not a word. Don’t tell them anything”. I wiped my tears, composed myself, and steadied my breathing.
Minutes later my parents returned and asked me how things were. I offhandedly remarked that another specialist came in and gave some basic information and that more specialists would come later to provide additional specifics. I brushed off their questions with general nonchalant responses reiterating that I didn’t have all of the information and that more specialists would come later with more details. Thankfully, they accepted my responses and didn’t press further. Though I managed to hold the emotion down it was overwhelming. I felt as though I had a bomb in me that was going to detonate at any moment. The emotion was so overwhelming that I would go to the bathroom every few hours, bite my hand and quietly cry. I played it off as having an upset stomach but had to do this every few hours to let the emotion out or I would completely break down in front of my parents.
After numerous consultations with specialists, I ultimately returned to Alberta to have my original doctors perform what would be a 7-hour surgery. The operation was very hard on my body. The skin from my head and face were peeled down, my skull was opened, my brain somewhat lifted to expose the optic nerve and tumor which were subsequently removed, effectively leaving me permanently blind in my right eye. I groggily awoke to two layers of internal stitches in my head. The stitches periodically itched though it was not as if I could scratch at them. I also had 32 staples in my head and looked disfigured. At least I perceived myself to be. The massive swelling and weight gain to my face and body did little to help with this notion.
The third day after my surgery I was finally able to walk again, though with difficulty.
A week or so later I was out of the hospital and recovering at Valor Place. This was a facility for the military and police to stay when needed. Sort of like a Ronald McDonald house. My parents also stayed with me during this time. As I recovered, I realized just how damaged my body was. Roughly a week and a half after my surgery I attempted a single push-up. My head felt as though it would explode after the first rep and so I immediately stopped. I later went to grab something from the bottom of the fridge and when I squatted down, I nearly toppled over as my legs began to shake. I severely underestimated just how atrophied my muscles had become.
Regardless, I slowly tried to build back up. I would walk on the treadmill for 5 minutes at a time with very slow increases to my speed. I would lift very light dumbbells for 10 minutes at a time. After these workouts, if I could even call them that, I would sleep for an hour or two because of the fatigue. As broken as I was physical, my mental state was far worse. Whether day or night each presented unique challenges. During the day I would wait by the phone for my doctors to call and tell me what my prognosis was. At night, I felt terrified and alone, even when others were around. I felt at a complete loss with myself as though I had no idea how to live my remaining moments. I could physically feel the stress weighing down upon my shoulders as though I was perpetually moving through a sea of molasses with no land in sight. I would cry almost every single night. Strangely though, despite all of this I would still walk down to the gym and train, even if only for a handful of minutes. Every move I made felt as though it would somehow impact my future for the worse. It was a strange feeling. I was terrified of dying.
Though as terrifying as that was, I was more concerned for my family and friends. I didn’t want to leave them behind. Moreover, I didn’t want them to be hurt by my passing. This hurt me more than the thought of dying. Fortunately, however, things took another unusual turn.
It was a little past 8 in the morning and I was in the shower. My phone rang and I looked out at it to see the screen flash up with the hospital number. I somewhat panicked and immediately shut off the shower half covered in soap. I grabbed my phone and answered it. My doctor was on the other end and said something to the effect of “Hey it’s Dr. Steinke, we got the results of the biopsy, it’s a low-grade glioma, you’re going to be fine, I wanted to let you know right away so that you didn’t have to come in and wait for the results”. I began to shake and had tears form in my eyes. To this day, I have no recollection of anything else that he said.
I would later learn that I had a pilocytic astrocytoma type 1, low-grade glioma. This was the best diagnosis I could have had and ultimately led to being cancer-free. What made this so unusual was that my tumor presented as a high-grade optic nerve glioma, which is fatal. My doctors and the pathologists examining the tumor were all perplexed as there was no documented case in the medical history of a low-grade glioma presenting as a high one.
Coming soon – Part 2!
Corporal Michael Jaszczsyn