There had been cancer in Michael’s family, but he never thought it would happen to him. After he learned he had colon cancer, he applied the tools he acquired while going through a difficult period in his life to help cope with his diagnosis.
My life was rolling along; I was never thinking about cancer or health. My dad died of colon cancer, but that was him, not me. I’d been getting colonoscopies every five years since about age 45, thinking everything’s fine. In 2004, I got a follow-up call from the doctor while I was driving with a friend to Quebec City. They found two polyps believed to be cancerous, on oppositesides of my colon. I asked the doctor a million questions about my options while my friend Gary drove. I remember being in a state of disbelief. The doctor recommended immediate removal of two-thirds of my colon. We didn’t talk about chemo, he just urgently recommended surgery and wanted me to get a second opinion as soon as possible. After the call I sat in the car and talked to Gary, who’s wife had just died of ovarian cancer.
Another Learning Experience
I called a long-time friend and right there on the phone I fell apart. I was so grateful to have someone to cry with. I couldn’t eat and was in total disbelief, thinking why me? I spent the whole day by myself walking through beautiful Quebec City. I never felt so alone in my life or so angry at other people. I was jealous of people having a good time; the juxtaposition of “poor me” and all of these happy people. I felt different from everybody else.
While on vacation my doctor scheduled an appointment for a second opinion at Mt. Sinai. Both doctors suspected it was genetic colon cancer. The doctor at Mt Sinai confirmed the recommendation for surgery and scheduled the operation within two weeks.
Years before I had been through a divorce which was so stressful that I actually pondered suicide. Therapy saved me from that fate. I learned that that the relationship was toxic for us both. My wife of 17 years had persistent addictive behaviors that never seemed to change. I had gotten a lot of help through the divorce and learned that ‘shit happens’, but life doesn’t have to end. Ten years attending Al-anon readied me for my new life challenge. As I started facing this cancer scare, I went back to my recovery tools to figure out what I could and couldn’t control.
Sitting with this cancer challenge I recalled an oft said Al-Anon phrase “This is just another fucking learning experience!!” Instead of being devastated I decided that I was going to grow from this. While facing perceived death, I instead focused on how lucky I was to have medical coverage, good friends and a workplace that was understanding and incredibly accommodating.
Optimism Despite Setbacks
It was difficult for me to prep for the colon surgery. I became dehydrated and almost cancelled because of my inability to prep, but I ultimately had the surgery. Luckily, there was no evidence of cancer in anything they took out, so I knew I wasn’t going to die of this. I was immediately grateful and revised my thinking with an optimistic outlook—another tool from Al-Anon.
Unfortunately, I got an infection two weeks after surgery and had to go back in to the hospital. I felt like I was dying. While I was lying on a gurney Bill Clinton was just then being admitted at the same hospital being treated for a heart attack, so I had to wait while he was being cared for. Though I was in a lot of discomfort, I had to laugh about that. They took care of my infection, put in a drain, and I began feeling a little better.
During that second stay in the hospital, people from my past started showing up. I felt graced with such loving friends. I got a phone call from Israel, from my brother who hadn’t spoken to me or anyone in our family for 24 years. I’m not religious, but it seemed to me like someone was looking out for me in a profound way. Ever since then I’ve become fully aware about how emotional, physical and spiritual health are related.
From Anger to Compassion
My recovery was slow. My work granted me about three months at home and then extended that to five months. No questions were asked, and my full salary was paid to me. That kind of support allowed me to have a healthy recovery.
My brother then started calling me every week, to see how I was doing. Cancer brought family back to my life. After a few months I decided to visit him in Israel. Some doubting friends suggested the only reason he called was because he and his wife thought I was going to die and they wanted to access my money, but I think he wanted his adult children to finally have family. For years prior I had been disappointed with him for disappearing from my life, but I flipped from anger to compassion; he has to live with himself for all the years that he deprived his children of grandparents and an uncle. My recovery included being open to having new family relationships.
I tested positive for hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch Disease)so every three years I had to have colonoscopies, and endoscopies, yearly bladder and kidney screenings, and periodic skin cancer screenings.I was being watched ‘like a hawk’ which I am grateful for. Polyps were found now and then in the colon, but they were benign. I admit, it started getting a bit freaky.
Disillusionment and Fear
In 2014, during a routine endoscopy my gastroenterologist found a cancerous polyp in my stomach. The doctor removed it during the endoscopy. This however was a more serious finding. Teams of doctors studied the slides and did a tumor panel review. They concluded that there was no way to know whether or not the removed polyp had penetrated the wall, so they recommended an aggressive treatment which included another surgery and removed two thirds of my stomach.
Hearing the prognosis for this second bout with cancer, I felt disappointment. I felt disillusioned and fearful about this new cancer, but this time my girlfriend was there with me. What a difference that made. It was a huge emotional blow again, but I had good doctors, good friends, and this time I had a partner saying “we will deal with it.” This time, I didn’t feel alone.
From my first experience with cancer, I learned that I could survive. I knew to study my options, accept the doctor’s advice and trust spiritually that I was being cared after. I had two-thirds of my stomach removed during surgery. Again, the recovery was hard. The doctors sent me home too soon, which was frustrating. I was dealing with catheter issues, I was vomiting and couldn’t eat. I got another infection and had to return to the ER. After surgery this time I stayed at my girlfriend’s house for three months before returning to work.
Now, I’m more appreciative of every single day. I know cancer can come back at any time, but I’m going to live fully. Some things I can’t control, but I can control how I feel about them. There’s about an 80% chance my cancer will come back, so I have to do careful prevention. I had another worrisome polyp again last summer and I went into a fear state again, but they assured me that I was OK.
I suspect that cancer will come back in some form again—the mutation is there, in every cell of my body—but I don’t obsess about it. There are treatments for my particular cancer, and I am prepared to deal with whatever happens. I’ve prepared myself financially for any eventuality. I even took out a long-term insurance policy at age 50 and I am willing to move to wherever is needed for my best care. It’s reassuring to feel financially OK at this stage of life to handle whatever may happen. I am so grateful for all that. I focus on how fortunate I’ve been and look for environments and friendships that are healthy and positive.