“Well, it’s the size of a small orange,” my dad said as he pointed at the images taken of a tumor during his colonoscopy. It was a Tuesday night, and I felt a sense of relief that we had finally found the source of stomach pain and unexplained weight loss that he suffered from for the past two months. I was also shocked. As a thin, healthy, active thirty-eight year old, he wasn’t even a candidate for a colonoscopy, much less colon cancer. One week after the tumor was discovered he had a routine full body scan to ensure that the cancer was contained to his colon. My family assumed they wouldn’t find any additional cancer and he would have a basic surgery to remove the portion of his colon inflicted with the tumor, then he would be back to normal before we knew it. No big deal.
My parents walked in the house after the full body scan. It was a frigid February evening and my 12 year old sister and I could see from the looks on their faces they had not been given the news we expected. The cancer was going to be a very big deal.
My father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. His liver was completely engulfed in tumors and several of his lymph nodes were infected. He was told only 10% of people survive with a diagnosis like this. Being an incredibly optimistic person, there was not a doubt in his mind that he would beat it. After all, he had always considered himself to be in the top 10%.
Although he had a strong faith and a great attitude, the cancer could not be stopped. My father took an indefinite leave from his job and my mother became a full-time caregiver. In March, they removed a tumor the size of a grapefruit from his colon, and in April he started weekly rounds of chemotherapy. But after just three rounds it became clear that the chemo was doing more harm than good. My parents decided to end the chemotherapy and focus on using alternative therapies, including essential oils, acupuncture, prayer, healing touch, massage, music therapy, nutrition therapy, and regular walks to help my dad remain comfortable. He seemed to gain strength during the first few weeks of May, but by the end of May the cancer was taking control over his body and my parents were told if they wanted to do any last memorable things as a family, we should. We began hospice care, attended one last Twins game, made a trip to his hometown in Iowa, and he even got to take his girls to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game.
His battle with cancer lasted four months. He died on June 13, 2002 at age 39.
Unfortunately, my father had no reason to be screened for colon cancer, but now at age 23, I will have regular colonoscopies for the rest of my life. Yes, the “clear liquid diet,” as we call it in my house, isn’t my favorite way to spend twelve hours, but it is far better than the alternative.
My family’s experience with colon cancer does not have to be yours. If you are over age 50 or have a family history of colorectal cancer, talk with your doctor about scheduling a colonoscopy today. Colon cancer is one of the most treatable cancers when caught in the early stages.
Editor’s Note: Guest Blogger Catherine Osterhaus is passionate exerciser, health nut, and community health educator. She spends her working days encouraging others to eat healthy and be physically active to promote health and prevent chronic disease. To learn more about how to reduce your risk of colorectal cancer or to detect it early, visit the Prevent Cancer Foundation‘s new site, Colorectal Screening Saves Lives.