Saturday, February 28, 2009

Huge Losses: My Family's Struggle with Colorectal Cancer

Erika's story of survival with colorectal cancer (CRC) is a wonderful one to share with everyone. She is proof that screening can save you. My personal experiences with CRC underscore the same message, although with a less happy ending.

I have lost two family members to CRC, my father and one of my brothers. You can be sure I am a huge proponent of screenings and prevention. In fact, I am up for my own again this year. I am on a five-year plan given my family history.

When I was five, I lost my father to CRC. This was in the 50s when diagnosis of disease, while light years ahead of earlier generations, did not have all the incredible tools available today. Finally diagnosed in 1954, my father (a man in his early 40s) had suffered digestive problems for a year or two prior. When he finally went to the family doctor for the first time, the likely culprit suspected was ulcers. Over time as his symptoms worsened, doctors ultimately decided to do surgery to take a look around, a more common practice then. Once they did, they saw just how serious things were. He lived for nearly three years, all of them difficult. With each surgery they attempted to reroute his digestive track to allow him to eat and function normally. Each attempt worked for a short while until the cancer grew and caused another obstruction. In the end he was unable to eat or do anything of substance. It ravaged him. My mother spoke often of him as a stubborn and determined man, which served him well until he became ill. That stubbornness and the inability to properly diagnose him early enough led to such an early death.

Over the years, I learned more about the causes of his death and took them to heart. I began CRC screenings in my late 20s. I urged members of my family to do the same, although as the youngest by a lot of years, my voice was often heard with love, but not much action. Nearly 12 years ago, one of my brothers became ill. At 57 and always healthy, he was treated initially for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It became quickly apparent that something else was going on. He reluctantly admitted to have some digestive problems for the previous year that he did not pay much attention to. One series of tests led to another until cancer was detected in his liver. As he spoke with the surgeon who would operate and try to eliminate it, the story expanded. His surgeon was not satisfied that the liver was the host of the original cancer. And sure enough, upon doing more testing, the doctor discovered a blockage. The cancer had begun in the colon and rectum, but had spread to the liver. My brother was in stage IV of this disease. When he awoke from surgery with a colostomy, he could barely face that fact. While initially severely depressed by his fate, and angry at himself for never having heeded the messages from me and the health care community about the high incidences of heredity involved with CRC, he did embark upon a rigorous chemotherapy treatment. While it provided some shrinkage, especially of the tumors in his liver, his disease had progressed too dramatically for an optimistic prognosis. He died six months later with all of us at his side.

As I said, you can bet that I am a champion for CRC screenings. My family's story tells of the other side of this disease, the side riddled with losses and sorrow. Who knows how differently this story could have turned out if, in my dad's case, he had spoken up sooner and had more advanced technology been available. In my brother's case, it is maddeningly clear that had he undergone routine screenings the cancer might never have formed, or if it had, the doctors would have identified and treated it sooner, before it metastasized. Sometimes I feel angry all over again when I think about my intelligent and wonderful brother living with his head in the sand. Other times, I wish people like Erika had been in our lives to remind everyone just how important it is to have regular screenings. Mostly, I miss him like crazy and hope that everyone else in the family takes it to heart.

Please, please, have a CRC screening. You don't need one every year. Depending on what they see when you have yours, you may not need another one for 5 or 10 years. Get over your reluctance to have a colonoscopy, or get used to the fact that you could be one of the 50,000 who die each year from this very preventable disease.

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