Before September 17th, 2015, I was confident in three things. I was fit, healthy and disease free, if you didn’t count my compulsion to color wheel a closet and a drawer full of socks.
It turned out only two of those things were true. Getting a diagnosis of colon cancer, or more specifically for you sticklers out there, Rectosigmoid Carcinoma, does not qualify you as being disease free. On that day, and a few weeks going forward, I often found myself thinking about my friends and family that had never put their fitness and health first. There they were, feet up on their couches, scarfing down their skittles, diet coke and twinkies, and they did not have a stupid mass 15 cm from their anuses!!
All the lifting of weights, all the running, all the Pilates and all of the sensible eating had brought me to this? Really? I was pissed! Yes, yes, I know that genetics play a very large role in whether you get this type of cancer. My father died of it. However, he had been an alcoholic. He never did any type of physical exercise unless it was jumping up and down at at racetrack or lifting a 2/4 at the local beer store. He abused prescription drugs and burned red meat at the stake before eating it. Come ON!!! He was asking for it. Me? I did everything right…at least 80 percent of the time. I had spent the years since turning 30 making pretty good decisions about my health. The older I got, the more
obnoxious vigilant I became when it came to my overall health. I wasn’t weird about it, I swear. Just consistent.
Regardless, there I was at 54, five months shy of my 55th birthday, with a real corker of a disease. It wasn’t until I was finally able to talk to my surgeon that I stopped being so resentful. Our first meeting did not go as smoothly as I had expected. When I walked into his office with my entourage, he assumed I was not the patient. He thought my sister Sarah was. In his defense, I had left Sarah in the waiting room with the task of gathering up all my medications and doctors notes. She was last to enter his inner sanctum and she was carrying all the important stuff. In hindsight, I should not have used her as my personal pack mule. Anyway, once I redirected his attention to me, he asked me why I was there. The sarcasm part of my brain lit up and I wanted to tell him that I was there to interview him about surgeons that don’t have time to find out why a new patient is coming to see them!!! Luckily that part of my brain, while directly linked to my mouth, had been experiencing a 30 second delay since Cancer Day.
Instead, I told him I was in his office this fine morning because THIRTY-FOUR days ago I was informed I had an ass cancer problem, and I was there to see if he could fix that for me. He told me that I should be scheduled for a CT scan right away. I’m sure my hands went up in the air at that point, probably narrowly avoiding my husband’s face. I told him that eight days prior to this meeting, I had a CT scan with the sole purpose of staging my rectal mass. I rather had my hopes pinned on the fact that he had that very scan on his desk and could tell me whether I had metastatic disease. or perhaps just a fantastically great looking artery system.
He got up with a determined look on his face and said he’d be right back. I remember vaguely looking at my sisters and maybe mouthing the words: What. The. Actual. Fuck?!?, but who knows for sure. As I mentioned before, there was a disconnect between my brain and mouth, which my husband was reveling in, by the way.
When Dr. S marched back in the room, it was with scan report in hand. Apparently his admin had failed to give it to him. Dang, I had rather liked her demeanor when we checked in. She was now dead to me. While clutching the hands of my husband on one side, and my sister Wendy on the other, and with Sarah still clutching all my stuff, I slowly disengaged from stress factor 1000 as Dr. S told me that my scan looked fantastic. No distant disease seemed to be present.
Obviously wonderful news. We continued to chat, this time with my sphincters more relaxed, and I got the plan of attack from Dr. S, everything carefully explained. This was when I flippantly told him that I should never have bothered with such a healthy lifestyle. What was the point if I was just going to get cancer?
I had always thought my fitness level protected me from deadly illnesses. Yes, unrealistic, but those pesky endorphins give you that smug runners high, and I was dipping into that on the regular. I had been thrown from my Unicorn and I was confronting a truth that so many fit people face. In fact, a truth that extremely elite athletes also tackle. Cancer can strike anyone. Anyone! I needed to ditch the Unicorn and get up on that Sensible Steed. Being fit did not stop me from getting some shitty disease. It most certainly will not stop me from getting another awful disease, or into a horrific accident, in the future. What I have done by choosing fitness (and that IS a choice, make no mistake) is give myself a chance to RECOVER quickly from anything that gets hurled my way. I am making it easier for a medical professional to tackle a disease that I might get by keeping my blood pressure down, my blood sugars normal and my BMI low.
That’s exactly how Dr. S explained it, and as he clearly pointed out the obvious to me, that delusional rainbow unicorn pranced away and I grabbed the reins of reality.
On subsequent visits with him, we talked of this again. How he always felt better when one of his patients was fit and healthy. It’s easier on a surgeon and easier on the patient. I was able to have a Laparoscopic Assisted Anterior Resection because I did not have fifty shades of fat on my belly. I was able to be released from the hospital ahead of schedule because I was already very fit and therefore able to get out of bed and start walking right away. I already had a level of cardiovascular fitness that allowed me to start back to my running routine almost immediately. Your gut loves movement by the way. It heals faster when you walk, not when you lay down and rest.
My level of fitness means something different to me now. It’s like retirement savings. Every run means a deposit into my health account and each healthy meal choice is money in the bank. Maybe I’ll never have to make a withdrawal again. Unlikely though. My sister Wendy said something to me once that has stuck with me. She said it would be pretty unlikely to sail through life without some kind of medical issue. It’s going to happen to the best of us at some point.
I no longer view my fitness level as a bullet proof vest, some kind of inoculation against illness. It is simply a weapon that I can use to fight anything that comes my way. That understanding alone is motivation enough to keep being
obnoxious vigilant about my health and fitness, as well as preach about the benefits of movement right here on my blog.
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