I have finally learned to say the word “bowel” without giggling or turning red. Unfortunately, it took my husband’s diagnosis of rectal cancer for me to overcome my infantile response and give the bowel the respect it deserves.
Once we both reached 45, and after my husband’s brother went through a bout with colon cancer when he was 50, I started bugging my husband to get a colonoscopy.
“I will,” he said.
But he didn’t.
Not until this past January, at the age of 54.
The doctor removed a polyp. He said it was no big deal. Except for some excessive bleeding from the site, everything looked fine.
We were so certain everything was fine that I didn’t attend the follow-up visit. Nick stopped by the doctor on the way to work.
Then the call came.
Nick, in a weaker voice than normal, said, “They found cancer.”
People who have had someone give them this news know the terror that strikes at that moment.
It’s been said that when you believe you are going to die, your life flashes before your eyes. When I heard the word cancer our future flashed before mine.
The cancer odyssey, like life, is an uneven one. One doctor told us it was stage one cancer, which was considered curable with the removal of the polyp. The safest bet for a man my husband’s age and with his overall good health, however, would be to remove the part of the rectum where the cancer was found.
Of course, he could choose to do nothing. Since the chance of the cancer having spread to the lymph nodes was only between 10-12 percent.
We were told time was not an issue. Our doctor sent us to the oncologist, who looked at the information and concurred.
We went for a second opinion at the Cleveland Clinic.
The doctor there said the same thing. Operate or wait and see. But with my husband being young and healthy, surgery was indeed the best way to insure that the cancer was gone.
Due to incorrect insurance from our insurance company, we could not use the surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.
The surgeon recommended to us by our gastroenterologist wasn’t on the insurance company’s, list we were told. So we made an appointment with a surgeon who was on the list. Neither of us cared for him. His office was dark and dingy. His staff seemed complacent. And when he asked, “What are you doing here?” I knew he had not read the records that had been sent to him.
Another call to the insurance company revealed that the surgeon we wanted was, indeed, in their network.
We knew within 30 seconds of meeting her that she was the right one. Again, we asked what our options were. And again we were told my husband could wait, get checked often, and see if things change, or, proceed with a resection.
The wait and see method sounded so good to my husband. No surgery. No recovery. Life goes on.
Or would it?
At all four doctor visits I asked, “If this were you, what would you do?”
All said they would get the surgery. That answer trumped willful thinking.
The operation took twice as long as it was supposed to. Each time one of my daughters or I walked up to the board where nurses report patient progress in coded names, there was a small scalpel next to the initials DBW. Nearly everyone else who had been with us in the surgery waiting room had left to visit their recovering loved ones.
Obviously, something had gone askew.
Two and a half hours later after the surgery was scheduled to have been finished, the small scalpel on the board disappeared.
Yes, there had been complications, the surgeon said. After finishing the original surgery, she had found a leak in the bowel so she had to redo the surgery. But now everything looked good. We would get the pathology results on the lymph nodes in about five days.
The surgery was on a Tuesday. On Thursday, I finally decided to go home, shower and change clothes.
A half hour after I returned home, the phone rang. If a tear has a voice, the voice on the other end of the phone would have been full of them. The doctor had just left my husband’s room.
“They took out twenty-three lymph nodes,” he said. “They found cancer in one.”
Forget the shower. Forget the change of clothes. I flew back to the hospital. When I’d left the hospital my husband had stage one cancer. When I returned, it was stage three. I didn’t go home until several days later, when my husband did.
There is a public service announcement on television where a woman is hanging on the back of her husband nagging him to get checked for colon cancer. I wish my husband had headed my warnings to get a colonoscopy. But in my heart, I wonder if maybe I didn’t tug hard enough.
Odds are, if I had, he would not now be undergoing chemo and radiation treatments.
Post Script – This essay is from eleven years agoIt was published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I have been going through some of my writings and posting those that I believe still have relevance. Nick is eleven years out from stage 3 colon cancer.