As I recall, it was the final days of a long, harsh winter. The wind banged on the window, while the last remnants of a blackened snow bank stood off in the distance. Though Bella was worried sick, she reluctantly agreed to let me return to Doctor Olivier’s alone because Riley needed someone to watch the kids. “But please come straight home after you’re done,” she requested.
As I sat half-naked on the exam table, I couldn’t help but take note of the meaningless details that surrounded me; a water color painting hanging crooked on the wall, a glass container that needed to be refilled with tongue depressors, an extra chair that didn’t belong, making the room feel cluttered.
The door opened and Doctor Olivier walked in, holding a yellow folder under his arm. It was my entire medical history. His face looked somber.
This can’t be happening, I thought. I never smoked, rarely drank and I’m only in my fifties.
Doctor Olivier was a white-haired gent with a moustache trimmed a half-inch off his top lip, betraying his military background. With a white coat to match, his stethoscope swung freely from his thick neck. He had large hands with perfectly manicured fingernails. It’s strange the things you pick up when somebody’s about to invade your private parts. “Don,” he began in his calm, no-nonsense approach, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but…you have colon cancer.” He opened the folder for more details.
I felt like he’d just punched me in the gut. “I what?” I asked, one octave higher than normal.
“The rectal bleeding, weight loss, abdominal pain and the fact that your stools have become longer and more narrow are all symptoms.”
“But it hasn’t been going on all that long,” I argued. He only shook his head. Now I definitely felt like vomiting.
“Sometimes colon cancer fails to produce any symptoms until the cancer has grown very large and even metastasized, or spread to other parts of the body. This is why the identification and removal of polyps through regular screenings play such an important role in prevention.”
“Spread to other parts?” I asked.
The man’s green eyes peered up from behind narrow reading glasses. I knew right then and there that I was in serious trouble. “The cancer’s already spread to your liver,” he said.
A bolt of panic, generating from my core, shot out and filled every cell of my body. My extremities began to tingle and my breathing turned shallow. There was a sudden pain in my chest and I knew intuitively that this was felt for my wife. What’s Bella going to do? I wondered, and a wave of dizziness nearly pushed me off the table. Then, I must have gone into some kind of shock or something. I kept eye contact, but for a while all I heard was a hum; the occasional phrase dancing in and out.
“…trace amounts of blood. Blah. Blah. Blah. … blockages preventing bowel movements. Blah. Blah. Blah. …consumption of red meat, obesity, smoking. Blah. Blah. …stage four. Blah. Blah.” There was a long pause. “Do you understand what I’m saying, Don?” he finally asked.
I don’t know how long we stared at each other before I answered. “Yes, I heard you. I have cancer.”
“That’s right. You have stage four colon cancer which has started to spread to other organs. At your age, I strongly recommend we pursue aggressive surgical treatment to remove the cancerous tissues. We’ll also want to consider chemotherapy and radiation therapy.” From his tone, this wasn’t so much a recommendation as it was an order.
Along with oxygen, my wits were returning to me. I understood the words he was saying, but they were still difficult to register. “But I’ve always been more of a quality guy…not so concerned with quantity,”I blurted.
He folded his arms, awaiting an explanation.
“What kind of life will I live…even if it’s extended?” I asked.
“We won’t know that until we begin, will we?”
“Maybe I should get a second opinion?”
“By all means, please do. It’s important to…”
“I just don’t want to cut myself short by living a few more months hooked to tubes,” I interrupted.
He nodded once. “I understand,” he said. After explaining a few more details I was too overwhelmed to comprehend, he left the room. There was clearly nothing more he could do for me.
Minutes later, I was dressed and walking down the icy sidewalk toward a frightening future that had just shrunk by decades. It was as if adrenaline forced me to move, one foot in front of the next. I felt numb, high on the fear of losing my life. And then I pictured Bella’s face and stopped. I must have dry-heaved for a solid five minutes.
My pretty, light-haired wife met me at the front door, shivering. I looked into her hazel eyes and attempted a smile. Before I said a word, she already knew. “Oh, dear God…” she gasped and pulled me to her.
As we stepped inside, I told her, “Stage four colon cancer.”
“I thought it was…” she began. “But it can’t be…” Her voice began cracking like warm water on ice.
Although we both suspected the same prognosis, there was no real way to prepare for it. We held each other for nearly a half hour and cried. Although I was already worried about having to leave her, I tried to console her. “We’ll be fine,” I whispered.
For a moment, she pushed away and peered into my soul. “We’ll be going for a second opinion,” she confirmed.
While a late-night hailstorm threatened to shatter the living room windows and Bella tossed and turned in bed, I fumbled on the Internet and conducted my own research:
It is estimated that fifty-seven thousand Americans will die from colon cancer this year; the second leading cause of cancer death in the nation and a disease that it is completely preventable. Prevention and early detection can mean the difference between life and death. Colon cancer forms from non-cancerous polyps on the wall of the small or large intestines. Polyps can eventually increase in size and turn cancerous. If polyps are found during a routine test, a biopsy may be done to determine if cancer is present and to which stage it has advanced. Women are usually diagnosed with colon cancer in its latter stages because many believe this disease only affects men. Unfortunately, this disease affects people of all genders and ethnicities. There are five stages, zero through five.
I stopped reading. I’m already nearing the final stage, I thought, and for the first time I felt guilty about not taking better care of myself.
I was preparing for bed when I looked up from the sink and surveyed my face in the mirror. I still had most of my dark hair. My brown eyes were filled with life. Dying can’t be what I’m in the process of, I thought. Besides the pockmarked cheeks from a cruel case of pre-adolescent acne, I looked as healthy and unscathed as the day I was born. I washed down two pills with a gulp of water and shut off the light.
As I headed for bed, it suddenly dawned on me:
All the things I was planning to do when I finally had the time…I may not actually have the time to do! I snickered at the thought of it. Shoot, I was gonna go fishing and travel the country with Bella in a motor home, where we could rekindle our romance…which took a backseat to too many other things.
I lay down in bed, placed my hands behind my head and stared up at the ceiling – haunted by my unrealized aspirations. I was hoping to do some writing, maybe even for the newspaper, and beg the boys down at the local race track to let me go for a spin. I even thought about talking Bella into doing some horseback riding…
I turned to my side and watched Bella’s eyelids struggle with another bad dream. Now what? I wondered.