Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fortunate despite diagnosis: Colonoscopy gives me a fighting chance to survive cancer — now go get screened

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It was a Thursday afternoon in late October and I was stretched out on a gurney at the Victoria General Hospital waiting to be taken to the operating room for a colonoscopy when the porter assigned to wheel me there appeared and stared through a partially parted curtain.

"You'll do anything for a story," he said abruptly.

Caught by surprise, I laughed. He didn't.

Nor did he smile or say anything else as he pushed the gurney down the hall.

Later, after I called and told the hospital's "manager of patient experience/quality improvement" how hurt and angry I felt, the porter would write a letter of "sincere apology."

The letter arrived in mid-November.

"My intent was to put you at ease and alleviate your stress and anxiety with a little humour," he wrote.

He ended with this: "Hope all went well."

Well, actually, all didn't go well.

Back in the recovery area, after the sedation wore off, the next person I saw standing beside my gurney was showing me a photo of what he found.

A tumour.

"Is it malignant?" I asked Dr. Allan Micflikier.

"Yes," he responded.

I would need surgery to remove the tumour. And a CT scan to see if the cancer had spread.

Much later, when I began to process all of what was happening -- after sharing the outcome with my family -- I realized what Dr. Micflikier had not said that afternoon. He hadn't said my colon cancer was caught early.

-- -- --

Colorectal is one of the deadliest of cancers -- it's ranked second-most lethal for men, third for women -- yet, if caught early, also one of most treatable. And it can be caught early through proper screening.

I already knew that going in because last year I wrote about the colorectal cancer ordeal of my Free Press colleague, Brad Oswald. Brad had come to me because he wanted to alert everyone over 50 to get tested regularly. Usually, being symptomatic or having a family history is what leads to a colonoscopy, the so-called Cadillac of diagnostic procedures for colorectal cancer. Symptoms such as seeing blood in your stools or perhaps stools that are noticeably narrower than normal.

But colorectal cancer not only runs deep, it can run silent for years.

For the most part, I didn't notice any of the most obvious symptoms. What I did have was unexplained bloating dating back five years, which led to my first colonoscopy.

While I was on the gurney, before the standup comedian arrived to push me to the OR, I remember feeling both guilty for taking up space, and having a strange feeling that there was something wrong deep inside, where the sun don't shine.

As it turned out, the CT scan that was ordered after last month's colonoscopy was clear -- except for a couple of "subtle nodes" -- but what stage my colon cancer is at, and how contained it is or isn't, won't be better known until next month, after Dr. David Hochman extracts the tumour and the tissue under it and the lab results are back.

Dr. Hochman is the same personable and talented young surgeon who operated on Brad. The good news for Brad is he's approaching the five-year marker of being cancer-free, as the saying goes. Statistically, just under two-thirds of Canadian colon cancer patients survive for five years.

-- -- --

It was Thursday evening, four weeks to the day after I had received the news, and I was alone with my five-year-old grandson, Jacob. We had read a bedtime story and I'd kissed him goodnight, when I heard the sound of a text message arriving on my BlackBerry. The friend knew I had written a column on the diagnosis and wondered how I was feeling about it. I was feeling the same emotions about what I had written as I've felt for the past months. Sad, vulnerable, angry, frightened, defiant, hopeful...

Hopeful that this column will finally move some of you to talk to your doctor about being screened for colorectal cancer so it can be detected early. And hopeful that it's not too late for me.

There's something else, though.

Another feeling I had during the last month.

I feel fortunate.

If family physician Dr. Terrence Szajkowski hadn't checked my chart and referred me for another colonoscopy five years after the first -- instead of the optional 10 -- I would have been a dead man walking. And for that I have one more feeling.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2012 B1


Updated on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 10:31 AM CST: adds fact box

6:52 PM: update

7:02 PM: update

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