The 'Big C': you are your own best advocate

Opinion: Columns

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

Cancer? Me? No way. 

But yes. Four weeks ago I was diagnosed with cancer, colorectal cancer to be exact. So what kind of cancer is that? I wondered that as well. As soon as I got my diagnosis, I wondered how it explained the months of troubling and puzzling symptoms I was suffering.

Colorectal cancer includes the colon and rectal forms of the disease. What's the difference? I sure as heck found out. The colon leads to the rectum. My doctors at Rush University found my polyp, or tumor, located in a kind of borderline area where the rectum ends and the main portion of the colon begins. That's significant, I learned, because the treatment is different between the two cancers. 

They found my tumor after giving me a sigmoidoscopy. It's a similar procedure to a colonoscopy, except a sigmoidoscopy looks at part of rather than the entire colon. My polyp was on the larger side, doctors told me, and it was indeed cancerous. Luckily, it was found early, and, according to my doctors, had not spread beyond the rectum. My cancer is an early Stage One form and very treatable. 

Age 50 is still the best time to start regular screening, but young folks can get this type of cancer too. At 39, I never thought about colorectal cancer screening.

So my next step is surgery to remove some of that 2.5-centimeter area where the tumor was found. The surgery is actually very basic, about three hours and a one-day procedure — I'll be released the same day with a couple of days rest at home before resuming my everyday life. No chemo and radiation treatment, which would've been the case had the cancer spread beyond the rectum. If my cancer were in the colon itself, I would have to have chemo and radiation regardless. 

When I had my sigmoidoscopy, my doctor — whom I'll call Dr. S. for reasons I'll explain later — was able to remove the polyp, which is standard when those tumors are discovered. Polyps, I learned, take years to grow, starting off as small as a pea. And they're not cancerous in the beginning. As time goes on, and the thing grows, they can become cancerous. 

 Mine was a nasty, ugly little thing. I know this because I was awake during the procedure. The doctors I've been dealing with over the last two months, I have to say, have been helpful and very professional. But they can't spot everything. And with the number of patients ERs handle, you can't allow yourself to get caught in "assembly line" medical care.

I had been going back and forth to various ERs and to my primary doctor since December because of the symptoms, which include constipation and diarrhea, as well as bleeding. 

I've suffered from gastritis — an inflammatory stomach condition — for three years, so all of the doctors kept treating me for that ailment. But we all know our bodies and we know when something just isn't right.

I was put on stomach meds and taken off. I was given this and that kind of hemorrhoid cream. And if one more doctor told me to "eat more fiber to help with the constipation," I think I would've turned homicidal because I'd been eating more fiber, fruits and "green-leafy foods" than I could stand. 

My main reason for sharing my experience and telling my story is to encourage others — especially black folk and in particular African-American men — to stay on top of, and advocate for, your health. 

Don't let anyone — doctors, family members, friends or strangers — make you think "it's all in your head." And black people, especially black men, need to be even greater advocates for our health. African Americans are dying at a higher rate of cancer than all other ethnic groups according to various studies over the last several years, even decades.

So advocate for your health no matter what. It's up to you.

Thankfully, I kept calling and asking Rush U. for the colonoscopy. And thankfully, I finally had one, which leads me back to Dr. S. 

Some folk are scared off by the procedure because of what it entails. Again, I'm sharing my experience — and the details — to let you know that, in the end, it's worth having if it saves your life. 

Doctors use a flexible tube inserted into the anus during a colonoscopy (as well as the sigmoidoscopy. Colonoscopies typically require sedation. Sigmoidoscopies, however, typically don't, since doctors are only looking at part of the colon — and whoever made that determination needs their ass whupped, but I digress …

… My procedure was going OK— weird, but OK. A camera attached to the tube videoed the inside of my rectum, which was shown on a monitor. I have to admit, it was fascinating to see — kind of freaky, but fascinating. 

While inside, the tube can eject a little loop that the doctor can use to lasso the polyp, then burn it as the loop closes around it. Then a little net pops out of the tube and scoops up the severed polyp. The doctors say you don't feel any of that stuff going on and they're right — I didn't. 

Well, Dr. S. was having a little trouble lassoing mine. He told me he was going to "switch equipment." Note to self and others: when doctors say they have to switch equipment, that's usually a sign something veeeeery uncomfortable is about it happen — might very well be necessary but likely to be uncomfortable as hell. 

Dr. S., like so many other cancer docs, have probably done so many of these procedures that it probably slipped his mind to warn me to "get ready for the big tube I'm about to jam up your butt!"

Yes, I could have used that warning — maybe something a little more subtle, but a warning nonetheless. 

I almost jumped off the damn exam table. And Dr. S's very kind nurse — bless her heart — kept telling me to, "relax, breathe in and out your mouth."

 "Oh really?!" I thought, "Lady, you go breathe in and out of your mouth! Breathing right now is the last thing on my mind!"

But she, Dr. S., and his other assistant were great. And the "bigger equipment," once inserted, did its job, removing my polyp. He called me the next day with the diagnosis. And so started my journey. 

If you feel or think you need to have a colonoscopy, get one and go through the procedure. You'll do fine. Cancer found early can lead to a healthier life. Mine was found early. 

Always advocate, be mindful, and stay positive.

CONTACT: tdean@wjinc.com

Reader Comments

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Suzanne Vestuto from Oak Park  

Posted: February 19th, 2014 9:34 PM

Terry, the very best in your recovery! How brave to share with all. You provided an educational service to the readers by encouraging testing. Thank you!

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