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Posted under: Opinion

The Many Faces Of A Colon Cancer Patient

This is a disease that impacts all races, but African Americans are currently impacted at a higher rate when it comes to diagnoses, as well as mortality.

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What does a colon cancer patient look like? If someone asked me that question two years ago, I wouldn’t have known what to say. I probably would have said I had no idea what a colon cancer patient looked like. Or, I might’ve said they looked like an elderly person. I knew nothing about colon cancer.

Now I know exactly what a colon cancer patient looks like: me. A 39-year-old, African American male with a wife, an eight-year-old daughter and a three-year-old son. It also looks like my 39-year-old first cousin and lifelong best friend who lost his life to colon cancer in August 2020.


My Cousin

My cousin was 38 years old when he was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. He was a U.S. Air Force veteran who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a weather officer. More importantly, he was a husband and father of an 11-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son. When his symptoms started, we thought it could be gas, an ulcer or something else that was not to be taken lightly, but — at the same time — not all that serious. We even thought it could be anxiety. I’m a licensed professional counselor, so we often spoke about mental health concerns. His symptoms started in the summer of 2019 and became so excruciating that his wife had to take him to the emergency department (after making many trips to the VA and his primary care practitioners).

In the emergency department, a physician finally recommended a CT scan, which led to a colonoscopy. That colonoscopy showed a growth so large that once it was found, they were certain it was cancer. My cousin was alerted that he needed surgery immediately. What we were told would be a four-hour surgery turned into an eight-hour surgery. When the surgeon spoke with my cousin’s wife, he told her that the tumor they removed was the size of a grapefruit. We had no clue this was just the beginning for our family.

After recovering from surgery, my cousin went through 11 rounds of chemo, starting in January 2020. We were in the midst of a global pandemic, so he had to go to chemo and face those challenges alone due to COVID restrictions. Prior to his final round of chemo, he started to feel worse. A CT scan in June showed that his cancer had spread. Between July and August, he only spent three more days at home with his family between hospital admissions.

We watched a perfectly healthy young man slip away from us and ultimately pass away on August 12, 2020. There is no guarantee that my cousin would still be here had doctors referred him for a colonoscopy earlier, but I can’t help but think that had they not assumed he was too young for colon cancer, he may have got help before it was too late.


Me

I work in healthcare quality, and I always go in for my annual physicals. In January 2020, I asked my primary care physician about a colonoscopy. She informed me that because my cousin was not a first-degree relative, like a parent or sibling, I was likely not at risk and that my insurance company probably wouldn’t pay for it.

I went back in August because I thought I may have contracted COVID, and asked about doing my annual blood work. I’d been working out, eating really healthy and living a healthy lifestyle, but the blood work showed I was slightly anemic. After a second round of blood work showed the same thing, my doctor recommended an at-home occult test. Those results finally led to a referral for a colonoscopy.

When I went for the colonoscopy consultation in September, the gastroenterologist told me my numbers were so close to normal that he didn’t expect to find anything. But after the procedure, I woke up to him telling me he found and removed a 15 mm polyp. He didn’t think it was cancerous. However, the standard procedure was to send it to the lab. Two days later he called and told me I had colon cancer.

Can you imagine hearing those words after what my family had just experienced? It turned my world upside down. We’d researched MD Anderson Cancer Center, in Houston, Texas, before, but due to the pandemic and my cousin’s rapid decline, he was not able to get there for treatment.

I immediately reached out to MD Anderson and scheduled a consultation in October. There, the doctor informed me the best course of action would be a colectomy. This shocked me because I had no symptoms. I thought, “I feel great, and now they’re telling me they have to remove a portion of my colon?!” After discussing it with my wife, we decided to do the surgery. They removed a portion of my colon and 20-plus surrounding lymph nodes. Luckily, the cancer had not spread and all lymph nodes were clear. That was the best-case scenario.


You

I was very fortunate. Some would say that I’m lucky. I would say that my cousin’s death saved my life. If not for him, I would’ve never asked about a colonoscopy. I’ve been told that had I not had that colonoscopy when I did, things certainly would have progressed. If I waited until I started having symptoms, the cancer may have been too advanced for treatment to really be effective.

Unfortunately, that’s the case for so many other people, especially young African Americans. The colon cancer mortality rate for Black men and women is approximately 40% higher than other groups.

This is a disease that impacts all races, but African Americans are currently impacted at a higher rate when it comes to diagnoses, as well as mortality. Now that I know a colon cancer patient looks like me, I’m making it my mission to do anything that I can to raise awareness about colon cancer.

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