My story (the long version): Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month
In life, there are some things that develop over time. For example, my faith and beliefs have developed over the course of my lifetime, and I hope that they will continue to evolve for the rest of my life. (I know that some people have a Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion experience and become instantly “born again” but this is not part of my story.)
There are other things that happen quickly–even instantly.
For example, I was in a car accident in 1977. A truck crossed over the double yellow line on a curve as I drove along a country road. My little Dodge Colt was crushed, and I sustained life-threatening injuries. The long-term consequences have been both physical and psychic for me. But that’s only an instance, and not the story that I want to tell here.
In August 2001 I went through a couple of weeks of not feeling well. I was 49 years old, and I thought that the constipation that I was experiencing was a sign of my impending middle age. Despite this, my then-partner (now wife) Melinda and I went out to dinner on Friday evening with some friends. I “sucked it up” and enjoyed our time together the best that I could, but on our drive home I started feeling worse and worse, mentally curling up in a ball on the floor of the car as Melinda drove. For the first time I told her that I was feeling sick. When we got home, I went to bed and stayed in bed throughout the weekend.
On Monday morning Melinda left on a business trip. She was driving, leaving our Southern California home to go to the Bay Area by way of the Central Valley. She checked in with me several times during the day, and I assured her that I was okay, despite the fact that I felt lousy. That night at about 8:30, after having dinner with my mother in the Fresno area, Melinda called again. As we talked, she decided that she was going to come home right then. I told her that wasn’t necessary, but she insisted on making the 3-1/2 hour drive right then.
By the time she walked in the door my situation had significantly deteriorated. I was weak and nauseous. I was standing over the bathroom sink thinking I was going to vomit when she greeted me; she went to do something (get her suitcase? I don’t know) and I immediately passed out cold. When she came back moments later, she was standing over me: “Are you alright?” I heard her ask. Then, “That’s it! I’m taking you to the emergency room.” By then, I was done protesting.
Off we went. It took little time to get there, and despite a busy ER waiting room, little time to get me in to see a doctor. I introduced Melinda to the doctor as my legal domestic partner, and then my mind wandered off somewhere else while they talked about what was going to happen. Pretty soon I was undergoing tests, tests, and more tests; pretty soon, I was being introduced to first a diagnostician and next hearing, “This is your surgeon.”
Surgeon. Tumor. Cancer. Colon cancer.
These are not words that anyone hears on an everyday basis, particularly about themself. It was a shock. But I had no time to do much processing.
Soon I was being anesthetized. I was saying goodbye to Melinda, telling her I love her, telling her, “I could die, you know.” Trying to pray, to recite the 23rd Psalm–but the drugs were working and I forgot the words.
I was in the hospital for three weeks. My colon, appendix, ovaries, and ten lymph nodes were removed. The kind of tumor I had is called an “apple core lesion”–a tumor that wraps itself around the outside of the colon and chokes down on it. Because I was in distress when I came to the hospital, there was no time to prepare properly and my surgery was basically meatball surgery, performed in the middle of the night. After the surgery, I was taken to some mystery place where I was kept in a drug-induced coma for a week as a pain management measure. When I was brought out of the coma, I was still intubated–something that is painful and also frustrating because it makes communication impossible. I had what Melinda called a Christmas tree attached to me: lines of every color running into and out of me. The second and third weeks were spent in a two-bed room, but I was fortunate to not have a roommate until the very last morning I was there. Because my ovaries were also removed I went into instant menopause, and in addition to the post-surgical pain, I experienced the hot flashes that go with that. I was allowed to take a shower–finally–after two and a half weeks. As you might imagine, this was the best shower I have ever taken!
Later, at my first follow-up visit, my surgeon would tell me, “You weren’t ready to hear this at the time, but you were only two to three days from being inoperable.”
I was released from the hospital the night of Thursday, September 6. Getting home was so exhausting that I slept for most of the three following days. We’d been having the house painted when I went in to the hospital. I was anxious to see it, but I wasn’t able to gather the strength to go outside until Sunday afternoon; I walked out the back door, down the driveway, and across the street, where I sat down on the curb and admired the colors I had selected. It then took me 20 minutes to regain enough strength for the “return trip.”
On Tuesday, the world blew up. September 11, 2001. I got out of bed and wandered into the family room where Melinda had the television on; I stood there and watched as the plane flew into the second tower. I believe that the nightmarish experience I had was different from most people’s–since I was still taking the maximum allowable prescription of painkillers.
For almost three months I had to have a visiting nurse come to the house every day for wound care. I then went to the hospital every day for wound care for another two months. When my wound was sufficiently healed, I started my chemotherapy regime, which went on for another ten months. I saw my surgeon every week. I bonded with her. And then it was time to be discharged as her patient; this was hard, saying goodbye to the woman who had saved my life, who was compassionate enough to have held my hand on a particularly bad recovery day. I was handed off to my oncologist.
I still see the oncologist every six months. I go in and have bloodwork a week before my appointment. Even though most of my appointments have gone smoothly (“Perfect! Everything is perfect. See you in six months.”) that week is a time of building anxiety. Almost half of all patients thought “cured” of colon cancer develop recurrence within five years. And yet, here I am–8-1/2 years post-cancer, and going strong.
Think of George Bush’s spokesperson Tony Snow. Despite his politics, I rooted for him and prayed for him every day. I wrote to him, and he wrote back. We had become part of a strange family. I cried when he died.
But there is never a day that I don’t think about it, never a time when it isn’t part of me. I have a “zipper” scar that runs up my midsection. I have dietary restrictions and weird digestive issues. I get nervous when my stomach growls. My body may be cancer-free, but my soul will always be victimized by this disease.
The irony is that I was 49 years old when colon cancer struck me. I had every intention of going to the doctor and having my first colonoscopy in 4-1/2 months when I turned 50. I just didn’t get that chance.
My conclusion though, is that you do not want this to happen to you or to anyone in your life. Colon cancer is the #2 cancer killer in the United States, but it is also the most treatable. The test that seeks out the disease also allows the doctor to remove potential cancer growths right then and there. So if you’re 50 or older, have a colonoscopy. If someone else you know hasn’t had one, talk to them–share my story–and make them get one. Everyone who has had one says that the prep is worse than the test itself–and it is. But the prep is nothing–nothing–compared with what I went through and continue to experience.
As we say on Twitter, #beatcancer because #cancersucks