Dave Ainsworth’s cancer is in remission. His mission of hope has just begun

Dave Ainsworth remembers the doctor telling him he was taking the grim news fairly well. 

It was May 2020. Ainsworth, then 42, was at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton. He had already been through a year of biopsies and tests to find out the reason for the pain and swelling in his lymph nodes. He had twice been told by other doctors that it likely wasn’t cancer. He suspected otherwise. And now was the moment of truth. 

Yes, it was cancer. Head and neck cancer. Stage 3.

Ainsworth asked the doctor, “Is this a timeline thing or do we have options?” There were treatment options. Ainsworth said treatment it would be. 

“The doctor looked taken back, laughed and said I seemed to be handling it well,” said Ainsworth, who laughed back. “I told the doctor cancer wasn’t the first thing to try to kill me.”

Ainsworth at the Cross halfway through treatments, August 2020. Unable to walk to  appointments, he used the wheelchair, the knapsack, the cane and his sense of humour to pretend he was a tank, giving other wheelchair users a smile in the process.

Cancer’s physical toll

Dave Ainsworth is a Corporate Security Advisor with the City of Edmonton.  He helps protect people and property. His are skills honed by seven years of work with the British military in the 1990s. He has served several tours of duty abroad, after which he joined Her Majesty’s Police Service and became a member of an armed response team in the special operations branch.  

Fighting cancer is a new domestic assignment. He tries to fight it with resolve, resilience and humour. 

“I think it’s important to inject some humour and hopefulness wherever you can in what can feel like a hopeless situation” he said. “There are still some things you can control, and I’ve found that that can give another person the hope they need, or at least a laugh on the way.”

Dave Ainsworth working intelligence on the border between two countries, 1998.

He has been in remission for four months.

Medical professionals have helped him escape with his life, but he is not, after 36 bouts of radiation and seven sessions of chemotherapy, the same person physically. 

Some saliva glands are gone. He lives with damaged cartilage on his neck. His thyroid is damaged. The enamel on his teeth is shot. He doesn’t taste food well anymore. His voice is deeper. He needed speech therapy, physical therapy and swallowing therapy, too.

Thumbs up in radiation treatment. Ainsworth kept his spirits, and the spirits of others, up, relying on a sense of humour cancer couldn’t touch.

An angel

Every patient in treatment goes through different levels of suffering. Ainsworth said the toughest part was seeing others in pain. He also saw beauty in the strength and dignity of his fellow patients. 

“There was a young woman at the Cross, probably 19 years old,” Ainsworth said. “Her hair was gone. I was there for four hours of chemo. She had a PICC line in her chest. She was going to be there for seven-and-a-half hours of chemo.”

The woman could barely keep anything down, Ainsworth said.

“But every time someone spoke to her, she gave them the most beautiful smile,” he said. “She bared her soul with each smile. I can only describe her as an angel.” 

He laughed, and made it easier for those around him to laugh, too. He remembers being asked many times if he needed a break from treatments. He told medical staff he had come up with a safe word—”Worcestershire sauce”—if he needed to stop. 

“And we stopped only if it was pronounced correctly,” he smiled. 

For those wondering about the correct pronunciation, Ainsworth has a link ready to go:

Ainsworth in tears with Christina at the bell. “”I didn’t realize it at the time but ringing that bell was just the start of things,” he said.

47 pounds

Ainsworth’s final treatment was on September 16, 2020. It was his son Jake’s 13th birthday. As he left the hospital, Ainsworth rang the bell, a ritual of hope reserved for patients who have emerged from the valley of treatment.

Ainsworth had lost 47 pounds in the process.

“They estimated that 70 percent of the weight I lost during treatment was muscle mass,” he said. “With cancer, the muscle is actually eroded. It’s gone.”

His legs were “like toothpicks.” His back and shoulders were bones. When he rang the exit bell, he held onto Christina so he wouldn’t fall.

“It was hard to look in the mirror and see the damage the cancer had done,” he said. 

At the same time, his mission was starting to come into focus.

The Ainsworth boys on a walk with their dad.

The road ahead

He started to walk. A few hundred metres at a time was all he had the strength for. He packed a knapsack with protein bars, water, a smartphone and a first aid kit “out of fear I would fall down or not be able to get back again.” 

He didn’t fall.

He got better at walking. He went on longer walks, a few kilometres at a time. He got a dog, Oscar, a Mastiff-Rottweiler cross, and they went further together. Ainsworth said his partner Christina named the dog.

“I thought he looked like an Oscar when Christina suggested it and agreed to the name,” he laughed. “I then remembered that she is in love with Oilers’ Oscar Klefbom.”

(Ainsworth keeps track of Oscar the dog’s weight, as if it is somehow the most important thing in the world, which it kinda is. “He is nine months old and is 70 pounds now,” he said.)

Ainsworth and Oscar, February, 2021.

Operation Long Slog

His sons, Jake, 14, and Tom, 12, would walk with him, too. 

And, then, on one walk, the path ahead took shape. 

Being a walker, Ainsworth came up with the idea to try to walk further than he had in his recovery. He would try to walk 47 kilometres.

Being a storyteller, he decided he would try to carry 47 pounds on his back every step of the way—one pound for each pound lost in his cancer battle. 

Being ex-military, he gave the challenge a name: Operation Long Slog. 

“People might think that being in remission is the end of the story, but it’s really the beginning,” he said. “It is the beginning of a long slog.”

Ainsworth, Oscar, with volunteers at this year’s Terry Fox Run. “They gave up their day to sell merchandise and raise money for the cause,” he said.

Terwillegar park and back

Operation Long Slog happens on Saturday, October 2, 2021. 

At 8 AM, Ainsworth will set out from Terwillegar Park on a 47-km course that will take him through the river valley to the Walterdale Bridge and back, ending with a circuit of laps in Terwillegar Park. He’ll carry a knapsack weighed down with 47 pounds of water the whole way. For drinking water, he’ll use a CamelBak device. 

Training with 30 pounds in Terwillegar Park, August, 2021.

On a bicycle alongside will be friend and work colleague Tana Vea. On the ground with him will be his dog, Oscar while Christina updates the social media and encourages donations. Friends and family will walk with him for the final kilometres back in the park. 

In his heart will be the people he has met along his cancer journey. The 19-year-old woman in chemo, for one. Teresa, for another. Ainsworth met Teresa on a training run, and named one of the legs of Operation Long Slog after her after she asked what he was training for. They talked. It turned out she had her own cancer journey.

“Everyone at the Cross, and I mean everyone, gives you everything they have,” said Ainsworth. “Those people care. Really care.”

Giving back

Ainsworth said he’s not sure that he’ll be able to pull it off, but he also knows it won’t be the hardest thing he has had to do. That was telling his sons that he had cancer in the first place.

“We invited them into our bedroom and sat on the bed and I had it all rehearsed but all I could say was, ‘I’m sorry, boys, I got sick,’ before we all cried.” he said. “My words just wouldn’t come out as I looked back at them and saw the pain and fear in their eyes. Christina had to help me explain. The rest of that day is a blur and as I think back to it, my soul still hurts to think about that part of their childhood.”

He does know he has to give something back. To give hope to others and to pay tribute to those who are battling the disease, and to those who are helping them.

“The 47 pounds on my back is meant to be symbolic, but also to be a burden,” he said. “If I can carry this around, I can represent so many people who are carrying the weight of cancer and who are going the distance. It is also for all those loved ones who help carry them through their journey.” 

And if he does make it the full 47 kilometres back to where he started, Ainsworth knows what he’ll do next.

“What I most look forward to is what it will feel like to drop that pack,” he smiled.

Rooted in family. Dave Ainsworth with Christina and the boys, Jake (next to Dave) and Tom,  Hawrelak Park, September 2020, after his last treatment. Not pictured: Oscar

Editor’s note: the pic at the top of the post shows Dave Ainsworth, left, on the couch at home, exhausted, being held and carried by son Tom. Dave is raising money for the Cross Cancer Institute through Operation Long Slog. More information is here: https://p2p.onecause.com/operation-long-slog