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A note on colon cancer

A week or so ago I finished treatment for colon cancer. Happily my prognosis is very good and I am eager to consign the episode to the past as quickly and definitively as possible. But I think I should add my voice to those testimonials urging people to watch out for symptoms and to take them seriously. Discussion of this disease will necessarily be a little indelicate, and I would rather never speak of it again, so I’ll try to be brief.

The first symptom for me was an increase in urgency of bowel movements. This developed very slowly, over many years, and I didn’t really think about it as an issue with any wider implications. If I had had it checked out when, for example, my wife had suggested I have it checked out (4–5 years before my diagnosis), I could possibly have avoided surgery altogether.

The second symptom was bleeding with, and then independently of, bowel movements. Even though this was rather alarming, I somehow managed to procrastinate and delay a visit to the doctor for four months or so after the principal episode. Had I gone immediately to the doctor, I might have got away with a smaller surgical intervention, with smaller implications for the rest of life. Had I waited much longer, my prognosis could have been much worse.

When I finally did get to seeing a doctor, he was rather doubtful that anything serious might be amiss; my recollection is that his response was along the lines of ‘you can have a scope if it will set your mind at ease, but really you should be thinking of drinking more water and exercising’. Luckily I did insist on having the scope. The waiting list in the public service for colonoscopies is very long; I availed of my health insurance and had it done privately (in the Beacon) within a fortnight or so. I was very fortunate to be able to do this.

It seems beyond ridiculous now that I let stress, professional obligations, and general personal inertia impede the diagnosis in the face of the symptoms, the advice of my wife, and the numerous pieces of writing like this one that urge people to take these things seriously. One piece of the picture that I was missing was how assiduously the disease is to be avoided, or how worried one should be about cancer in general. I imagined, even after my own diagnosis, that essentially either you catch it early, and it gets cured, or it comes too late. But the cure is a pretty difficult process; it made for a long and miserable year for me and those close to me, and life will not be going back to the way it was before. So I would advise anyone reading this, and my younger self if I could, to sometimes worry a little more about health, and stay on top of it. Ignoring or suppressing concerns is easier in the short term but it has its limits.

My greatest good fortune was having my wife, family, and friends offer so much love and support over the year. I don’t know how I could have borne the treatment without them.

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