This cancer may have saved my life
“It just goes to show ya … it’s always something! If it’s not one thing, it’s another!”
~ Gilda Radner as Roseanne Roseannadanna
I’ve reached a time in my life when merely getting ready for a walk is like preparing for battle. Sunscreen, hat, sturdy (read “expensive”) walking shoes, custom orthotics, a little pad for a hammertoe. Then there is some careful stretching of a painful Achilles tendon.
The rest of my body is showing signs of wear and tear as well. I wear a brace on my right hand for a deteriorated thumb joint. Hips, back and shoulders ache when I’ve overused them or even if I’ve slept wrong. That’s if I’ve slept at all.
It’s gotten so bad that my husband has started calling me “Whac-a-Mole.” He’s likening the number of aches and pains, doctor appointments and medical procedures on my horizon to that arcade game in which you whack a mole that pops out of a hole, only to have the mole pop up in a different spot. Again and again.
But I’m not complaining. Not really. I’m actually grateful, because I’ve also reached an age when I’ve started saying good-bye to friends who are my age. People who – because of cancer – have died way too soon. People I miss.
The mole that popped up last summer happened during my routine (you have had yours, haven’t you?) colonoscopy. The doctor removed a large polyp and sent it off for a biopsy. Polyps are what can turn into cancer if left undetected. The biopsy revealed that there were cancer cells in the inner muscle layer of my colon. This is colon cancer at its very earliest stage, the easiest to treat.
So now, I’m on the every-six-months colonoscopy plan. The doctor told me that the polyp was in such a place that without a colonoscopy, it probably would not have been discovered until it was at an advanced stage. I’m a lucky girl.
Most people get instructions to come back in five or 10 years. However, even the twice-a-year colonoscopy isn’t a big deal. I fast on liquids, take a couple of doses of a special laxative mixed with juice or soda, and stay close to the bathroom. Next day at the doctor’s office, they give me some very effective drugs so that I pretty much sleep through the whole thing. Piece of cake. Honest.
Some statistics for you:
• Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the U.S.
• More than 90 percent of people diagnosed with colon cancer are age 50 or over.
• The chances of developing colon cancer increase significantly after 50, so that’s when the American Cancer Society recommends that testing begins.
• The five-year survival rate for people diagnosed in its early stages is 90 percent.
• Only 39 percent of cancers are found at that early stage.
• Once the cancer has spread to other organs, the five-year survival rate is less than 10 percent.
I told you I was a lucky girl. I felt even more fortunate when I learned that in February, an old high school friend, Joan, had been diagnosed with advanced-stage colon cancer that had already spread to her liver.
Joan is exactly my age, 56. In May, her family was gathering at her home in New Mexico for what seemed at the time to be a “let’s get her well,” spirit-lifting, high-powered prayer session.
When Joan’s husband called the following week, I was expecting to get an update on her condition and the choices they had made about treatment. He was calling to tell me she had passed away. Just three months after the diagnosis.
See why I am grateful they found those few cancer cells in my colon?
That’s the reason I’ll continue to whack away at the little complications of age that pop up. I’ll get regular checkups, undergo a few somewhat unpleasant medical procedures and tests to ensure – as much as possible – that I stick around. I’ll gladly pay that price for the privilege, the gift of spending another decade, another year, another moment in this world. And I’ll be grateful for every day I’m here.
• Lorie Smith Schaefer teaches kindergarten at Seeliger Elementary School. For further information on colorectal cancer, visit the American Cancer Society’s Web site at http://www.cancer.org.