Since March is colorectal cancer awareness month, I thought I’d share with you my own story of surviving colon cancer at a young age.
You might have seen the story last week that new research shows a disturbing rise in cases of colorectal cancer among young adults.
Well, my own story starts when I was just 33 years old. My wife, Nicola, had recently given birth to our first son, Luke, and I was being an adult and scheduling appointments with dentists and doctors to get myself checked out.
I scheduled an appointment with Dr. Ernest Anderson, who had an old, dingy office, but it was near my house in Rochester, N.Y., so it was convenient. Anderson was old, probably way past retirement age, and I heard him praying with the patient before me. He was one of those guys who was hard of hearing, so he spoke loudly, in a booming, no-nonsense, deep-throated voice, as if he were always giving commands, even if he were just saying, “Pass the milk!”
He was thorough with me, to say the least. He ordered a whole battery of tests, including bloodwork and a stool sample, after I told him that a couple of my family members had had colon polyps. Honestly, I wasn’t going to do the stool sample. It just seemed excessive, and I was a relatively healthy young man without any symptoms or problems.
But I figured I might as well go for the whole shooting match and get a clean bill of health top to bottom, pardon the expression.
I was surprised a few days later when Dr. Anderson called the house to tell me there were microscopic traces of blood found in my test. “Go get a sigmoidoscopy, now!” he shouted at me. “Goodbye!”
Well, that was odd. Maybe I had taken Advil or something or it was just a false positive, I reasoned, without being too worried. But I scheduled a sigmoidoscopy, which is a less-invasive version of a colonoscopy that examines the first 12 inches of the colon. Dr. Chung Kim was my gastroenterologist. He found two small polyps, so he ordered a full colonoscopy, which would not only examine the entire length of the colon, but it would remove the two small polyps surgically.
I was under sedation for the colonoscopy, so my wife was with me. After I came out of sedation, Dr. Kim visited with us and said he removed the polyps, but…. And then he showed us a picture of an angry-looking, blackened mass that he found embedded in the wall of my colon. He was going to do a biopsy on it, but it didn’t look good. I can’t remember if he said the word “cancer,” but we certainly knew what he was talking about.
A few days later, we got the call that it was indeed cancer. I was 33 years old with a young wife, a 2-year-old son and possibly another baby on the way.
Nine days later, on Aug. 9, 2004, I had surgery to remove the cancer. By that Friday, Aug. 13, my doctor had declared me cancer-free, and Nicola had gone in for an ultrasound to confirm she was pregnant with our second child. That was a lucky Friday the 13th for me.
I was extremely lucky. Doctors since have asked me to repeat the story because they weren’t quite sure they heard it right when I tell it the first time. Yep, I had no symptoms, I was 33 years old, and my doctors caught a Stage I colon cancer before it killed me.
My simple message is take as many tests as you can, don’t ignore any symptoms, even small ones, and listen to your doctor.
I’m thankful every day that I did.