At the age of 21, Nivan Sharma wants to be a doctor. Not just any doctor, but a pediatric oncologist. Five years ago, at the age of 16, all Nivan Sharma wanted to be, was alive.
The Prince Rupert son, with the wide smile and deep brown eyes, he was born and raised in the city. He is currently completing his undergraduate degree to further his studies in medicine, so he can return some hope and healing to young people, like he was himself once – battling cancer.
Diagnosed with a rare bone cancer in 2015, the same as that of Terry Fox, Nivan had his knee and shin replaced followed by nine months of nauseating chemotherapy, that left him shouldered at too young an age, with heavy meaning of life questions.
The grade 11 high school student, who lived for learning and theatre, was told by his medical team to place his life on hold so he could focus on recovery. That meant leaving the safe-haven of his home, a long stay in Vancouver, giving up school, giving up daily contact with his friends and leaving behind much loved work in theatre, in exchange for healing.
Recovery consisted of a gruelling six month cancer treatment plan, that was later extended to nine. The main form of treatment for Osteosarcoma, the type of cancer he had, is chemotherapy.
Nivan admits that all he knew of chemotherapy at the time was that people go bald. As a teen, fresh faced and with no knowledge of cancer treatment, naive in his youth, he thought chemo and radiation treatment were one in the same.
The main form of drug used in chemotherapy to treat his cancer is Cisplatin. Cisplatin’s main ingredient is platinum.
Nivan said he was fitted with an intravenous port which was inserted through his neck and threaded down under his skin to sit just above his chest muscle. The cut was in his neck, where he will carry the mark of the incision forever. But what is now a battle scar and a healed reminder, enabled the tubing in his body, which in turn enabled the liquid metal treatment to flow directly to the vein leading straight to his heart, providing him with life.
“It’s known to be brutal in its side effects. The way my doctor described it, was that it was so effective in beating this cancer, that the risk was worth the reward,” Nivan said.
“We knew going in that there were all sorts of lingering side effects to go along with taking this drug.”
An intravenous session of chemo would take only 30 to 60 minutes he said, and that was the easy part. It was later in the day the side effects would disable his handsome smile completely.
“Absurd nausea would hit,” he said. This would come on around four hours after a session and would leave him debilitated with what he describes as a feeling of a heavy weight crushing his chest and with just enough energy only to sleep.
Everything came in cycles for him at that time. The chemo cycle was one drug one week and another drug the next, then the side effects, the the hospital stays, then the stays in Ronald McDonald House. It was all a continuous loop for him.
One moment feeling fantastic, on the drop of a dime the medication would make him nauseous and physically ill despite him feeling great seconds before and then fine again seconds after. Alternatively, he would feel ill all day with no relief what-so-ever. There was never a pattern or any consistency.
Chemotherapy also suppressed his immune system. If his immune system wasn’t strong enough he couldn’t have chemotherapy. He would be admitted into hospital for three or four days for chemo, and then released for three to four days when he and his family would stay at RMH. Sometimes after being released, within the five minute walk back to RMH, he would break out in a sweat with a new fever. This meant he would have to go directly back to hospital for re-admittance and a course of antibiotics until his next course of chemo.
When Nivan first arrived in Vancouver for his treatment, he said he shut himself off from the world. It was just him and his parents. He was very angry as a teenager he said, at one point announcing to his Hindu family that he was now atheist. He said that didn’t go down well, but later during the cancer treatment his family became closer and bonded through belief in recovery.
At the hospital, he stubbornly thought the only contact he needed was with his friends in Prince Rupert, through online communications, so he deliberately stayed in his room not reaching out to those sharing in his war. However, with the love of his parents and their relaying interactions of support, from other families who were living the same struggles, he eventually came out of his darkness.
The young man made friends. He made a special friend. He started to communicate. He allowed himself experiences he wouldn’t have had in Prince Rupert. He made choices to move forward that would affect his life five years on. Nivan started to heal inside and out.
The day came when his treatment was over, and he could return to his life in Prince Rupert.
One would assume there were feelings of jubilation, at winning over a deadly prognosis and smacking cancer in the face, but that wasn’t how it was with Nivan. It was with very mixed emotions that Nivan made forward momentum.
Nivan said it was those little connections, the inside chemo jokes, the first-hand knowledge of icky medical procedures and being able to relate to certain smells, were all things that his friends in P.R. could not relate to. The kinship with fellow patients at the hospital had become strong bonds of comradeship for this cancer soldier.
“It just feels wrong. Survivors guilt is the best way to describe it. You feel guilty for being healthy,” Nivan said.
“All these people that you were battling with…it’s like you are leaving your friends on the battlefield. You are leaving. You are going on, but they are still fighting the war.”
Nivan said he has had a lot of encouragement and support. He lost that special friend on the cancer front-lines, but from that loss has grown a greater appreciation for life. He says he is better for knowing her and is glad for her influence in his life.
It is because of her, Rowan, and the positivity she taught him, that Nivan relays for life. He relays for his new friend Issac, another Prince Rupert youth, who is continuing the cancer fight.
Nivan’s first relay with his new knee and shin was in 2017. His graduation from high school was the day before. He relayed in the morning to remember Rowan, and attended prom that evening. It was an entrance into adulthood and a new beginning for this young man.
“It was a really special day… just an emotional weekend all together. The Relay for Life, being part of that weekend too, is huge. Especially being my first one.”
“The survivors walk is the biggest thing for me. It is just one slow walk with the survivors and is usually pretty emotional…Certain ceremonies I think are really important in the relay itself.”
The fundraising portion of the Relay for Life is heartfelt for Nivan. As his cancer is a rare bone cancer there is less research completed on it, he said. At university he belongs to a cancer fundraising club which donates to the Canadian Cancer Society. For the past year and a half they have been planning a UBC Relay for Life. They managed to fund-raise, but sadly due to COVID-19 they can not execute.
“That was heartbreaking,” Nivan said, “It is important for a lot of people.”
“I am happy that Rupert people have a way to relay. It is really really exciting. So I’ll definitely be participating in fundraising and everything. I am just glad that they didn’t cancel it because it is so important.”
His experience with cancer has guided his life through and through, he said. It has given him greater knowledge of the medical system and assisted him with career choices. His empathy for others has grown and developed from his cancer journey.
“So, I have definitely flipped the script. Life is so rare and precious that you should live life to its fullest…So if you want to try something, I just think there might not be a tomorrow. I have a greater appreciation for life and for the people in my life.”
And this is why Nivan Sharma will relay for life on June 13, 2020.
K-J Millar | Journalist
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