The shadow finally has a name

by Cynthia Martens

The Free Press

Waking up frozen in fear in the middle of the night, I realize I’ve had a familiar recurring nightmare.

In my dream, I open the door to a room bathed in darkness and reach for the wall light switch nearby. But after two tries, I realize the switch doesn’t work because the dark shadow in the room has tampered with it.

To my horror, I instantly know the evil presence is now lurking very close, and it’s going to hurt me if I don’t run.

I never knew who was haunting me in my dreams.

But my pursuer now has a name-cancer. And it found me at last in the harsh reality of daylight.

At age 56, I was diagnosed with colon cancer July 8, when I went into Hillsboro Community Medical Center for a colonoscopy. Surgery followed the next day, and a 31/2 centimeter cancerous tumor was removed, along with about six inches of my colon-a procedure called a resection.

Thus began a battle in a waking nightmare-it’s a war with cancer that I will fight for the rest of my life.

My enemy actually showed its face almost a year earlier, when I first noticed blood in my stool. I went into an immediate defense mode, denying that I could have the same disease that took the life of my father when I was only 10 years old.

I still have a picture of Daddy taken near the end of his fight. In the photo, this once heavy-set, 6-foot-tall man wears a gaunt face on a frail, cancer-ravaged body. He can barely muster a smile as he poses for a final family photo with my mother, brother and me.

Years after he died, I still wondered: Why didn’t he go in early to see a doctor when he first noticed the warning signs that something was wrong with his body?

He didn’t want to know what it was, my mother said. My brave father was afraid.

I would never do that if it happened to me. But a year ago, when my body was warning me, I came up with excuses that put me on a year-long path of denial.

I had just lost a lot of weight-which I attributed to a recent diet; my daughter is getting married-not a good time to delve into unknown health problems; deadlines are looming at the newspaper during the busy winter months-no time to take off and let down my work family at the Free Press.

Six months passed and my excuses continued. My son was graduating from dental school in spring-wait until after that; I had a yearly gynecological exam in late July-I’ll ask the doctor about it then.

Taking action

On July 2, my husband, Mark, happened to turn on the television to check the day’s weather. We usually go for a two-mile morning run before work.

As I came out of the bedroom, Mark told me he just watched a report on the “Today Show” about the warning signs of colon cancer. Among them were blood in the stool, being over the age of 50 and having a history of colon cancer in the family.

In a heartbeat, the shroud of denial fell. I knew I had cancer-and that I may have waited too long, just like my father.

That same day, I saw Randall Claassen, a physician at PMA-Hillsboro Family Practice Clinic, who scheduled me for a colonoscopy as soon as it was possible. The screening test would be performed as an outpatient procedure under a local anesthesia the following week.

Using a sigmoidoscope, a slender lighted tube about the thickness of a finger, Claassen would be able to examine the lower part of my colon to look for tumors or polyps.

Claassen did not give me false hope. We needed to find out if I had cancer and how far it had spread. The hardest part of the screening procedure, he said, would be drinking one gallon of a preparatory liquid to cleanse the bowel for surgery.

The day before the screening, I had to go on a liquid diet. In addition, for about 21/2 hours that evening, I had to consume a gallon of Colyte.

Due to the anesthesia the next day, I was told I would not remember the colonoscopy procedure or feel any pain.

Discovery and decision

As I lay awake on the operating table following the procedure, the first thing I remember was one of the nurses gently patting me on the cheek. That confirmed what I knew in my heart-they had found cancer.

With my husband on my right and Claassen on my left, I was told the news: I had such a large cancerous growth that the doctor couldn’t get the scope past it, and I would be scheduled for a resection the following day to remove the tumor and part of my colon.

I remained prepped from the liquid diet the day before, and after having a computerized axial tomography scan-called a CAT scan-I was sent home.

That afternoon was a blur of phone calls to my children, family and friends to tell them about the surgery.

Growing up in a funeral home and as a Christian, I have never feared death.

Being steadfast in the face of adversity is something I’ve always strived for in my life.

But the strength to face the next two weeks came from other places as well-my husband, my children and my faith.

Would I have the opportunity to see future grandchildren, something my father never experienced?

Mark took me by the shoulders, held firm my gaze and said with unwavering conviction: “You are not going to die. We have too much living to do together. Too many sunrises to enjoy yet.”

As I was wheeled into the operating room, I repeated a daily family prayer and put my trust in God.

The colon surgery was performed at HCMC by Charles Graber-one of the most skilled surgeons I have met.

The news was good. The 21/2-hour surgery was a success, and I woke up with no pain. Recovery was remarkably swift-thanks to my general health, fitness, the surgery team and nursing staff at HCMC.

But as I lay recovering from surgery in Room 15, with four tubes snaking over my body, my rejoicing at the positive outcome of surgery was replaced by the reality that I still had to wait to see if the cancer had spread to other parts of my body.

The stages of cancer

Slowly, during the week following surgery, the pieces of my cancer puzzle came together.

There are four stages of colon cancer. The most ominous is Stage 4-it has reached the liver. The next is Stage 3-cancer in the lymph nodes. In bits and pieces, I learned that my CAT scan and pathology tests showed no evidence of cancer in either stage.

I was diagnosed with Stage 2 cancer-it had invaded the entire wall of my colon but not surrounding tissue.

One week after surgery, I had an appointment with Wichita oncologist Michael Cannon at his satellite office in Newton.

A chest X-ray during that visit showed no evidence of cancer in my lungs-another hurdle cleared in my struggle with the disease.

The remainder of my visit was learning about the pros and cons of chemotherapy used to kill any errant microscopic cancer cells that may have escaped into the rest of my body.

Studies cited by Cannon revealed that 22 percent of Stage 2 colon-cancer patients have a recurrence of cancer if they do not choose chemotherapy.

But of those who do choose chemotherapy, 20 percent experience recurrence. Given the negligible difference, and weighing the negative effects of chemotherapy, I have chosen not to pursue chemotherapy at this point.

Cannon left me with one more statistic. If I come in for regular tests, including yearly colonoscopies, and remain cancer free for the next five years, I will have an excellent chance of never having a recurrence of cancer the rest of my life.

The story continues

As a writer, my stories have a beginning and an end-very neat and tidy. But my personal story with cancer has no end. This is just the beginning.

The realities of the disease and its effect on those around me loom very large.

If cancer shows up again, I will have no choice but to undergo chemotherapy.

I have given an unwilling legacy to my three children-they will have to be tested for colon cancer as early as 40.

And any opportunity I have, I hope to share with others the value of going to a physician early-if not for themselves, then for those who love them.

Do big problems now seem much smaller after my experience? Does music sound a little sweeter and the faces of my children more precious? Yes. But I have always seen each day as a wondrous and beautiful gift.

My hope is that others will also understand the gift of life, family and friends.

And when they see the warning signs of cancer, they will get help before it’s too late.

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