Tag Archive | colon cancer

I saw the light

An article on Page 1 of today’s Active Style section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette immediately made me think of my very first column that ran across the bottom of the very first edition of the section’s predecessor, which was called “Health & Fitness.”

The article today is about whether skipping breakfast is a “good weight-loss strategy.” My column stated that diets don’t work and told how I saw the light after years of skewed thinking on the subject.

If you go on a diet, you go off a diet. Most people return to their previous eating habits and all that was lost is lost – i.e., gained back. That’s what I wrote in 1999? 2000? Whenever.

It’s still true, at least for me. You have to change your eating and exercise habits, which I did after watching Daddy die an excruciating death caused by colon cancer when he was 48 and I was 26.

And you have to stick with your changed habits forever.

For me it was about health – I’d been slim since losing my baby fat, as in pregnancy weight and full-faced youthful roundness (and was actually skinny, after the stress of my father’s 18-month illness and death).

At some point I threw our scale out and focused on eating healthy food in amounts that satisfied me, but also eating whatever I wanted in those smaller amounts. Beating cancer, while looking good, of course (I’m still a product of the mid-century South), was the real goal.

I remember well – and this speaks volumes about eating, girls and appearance, at least in our household and many others of the ’60s and ’70s – an episode of That Girl, one of my favorite TV shows when I was 11 and 12, in which Marlo Thomas’ character, Ann Marie, describes her daily weight regimen.

Marlo Thomas as "That Girl." Lots of us wanted to be her in the late 1960s.

Marlo Thomas as “That Girl.” Lots of us wanted to be her in the late 1960s.

I’m paraphrasing (I can’t find the clip), but it was something like, “Every morning I weigh. If my weight is [some crazy low number like 104 – which I might have weighed at 11 or 12], I have breakfast. If I weigh [1-pound heavier], I skip breakfast.”

Is it pathological that I remember that so well? Maybe.

Back to the article today – sort of – which spurred this train of thought. Breakfast played a large part in my change of habits. I’d stopped eating in the mornings when Mother stopped forcing me, sometime in my teens. I also thought I was fat as an adolescent (which I wasn’t, as you’ve seen in old pics if you’re a regular reader) and danced around an eating disorder in my late teens.

But in my later 20s I started eating breakfast almost every day – unless I’m not hungry at all or know I’ll be eating a huge early meal, like on a holiday. It all evens out.

For years it was high-fiber cereal with yogurt, but a few years back I realized I needed more fat in my diet – yes, we need some – and switched to Daddy’s go-to favorite breakfast (my version, anyway): crunchy peanut butter and raisins on whole-grain toast.

I fold it over into a little sandwich so I can walk around the house or work the crossword puzzle while I eat it – or take it with me and eat in the car if I’m running late.

And I eat some good dark chocolate every day.

EVERY day, unless something is bad wrong with me. I also remember well advice from former Arkansas Governor and Senator David Pryor’s mother that every meal, even breakfast, should end with a piece of chocolate. (Or something like that. Again, I’m paraphrasing.)

Oh, and in all honesty, I weigh daily on our Wii Fit. If my weight is up a pound or two, I figure it will go down. If it stays up for two or three days, I automatically eat a bit less and/or exercise more. But I don’t diet.

Because that doesn’t work.

Haven’t got time for the pain

By the number of hits this humble blog has gotten on the post about my stepfather’s death from a bowel obstruction, I need to come back to the topic. I will, and I’ll also write about my own lifelong battle with, ultimate major surgery for and continuing problems with my own gastrointestinal system.

It’s laid me low again since Sunday night, which annoys the hell out of me and scares the people who love me.

And regular readers know that Daddy died from colon cancer – it’s rampant in our family and it’s still killing way too many people each year.

But right now, I haven’t got time for the pain. Things were scary for a while but are considerably better now (except for my damned right shoulder, which flared up again a minute ago because I forgot and cleaned a spot on the rug). So I don’t want to go there tonight. Positive vibes and all.

But I’ll come back to it. I don’t mind sharing ugly/embarrassing details if it can help anyone else.

Maybe you’ve figured that out.

Today, though, I’d rather talk about happier things. Like getting my new bicycle last Friday evening.

Annabelle stands next to Lolly's new bike, an Electra Wren from Spokes. Zuzu is not impressed.

Lolly’s new bike, an Electra Wren from Spokes. Zuzu is not impressed.

Like seeing the fabulous actors/director panel discussion on the Rep’s presentation of “Death of a Salesman” with Mother at the Clinton School of Public Service yesterday then taking her shopping for a new mattress.

Like seeing Nancy Pelosi today (again, courtesy of the Clinton School) in a packed and polite house under Robinson Auditorium with my friend-since-we-were-teens Anita.

Like the fact that my semi-tame, huge hummingbird is already back, even though he’s way too early and had to fuss at my window because I didn’t have his food out Saturday. Poor little guy. He’s going to be cold tomorrow night. John and I discussed trying to lure him into the house but  haven’t figured out how.

He’s out there right now feeding away as I type. I love that little guy.

Oh, and like spending $84 at Dillard’s for the following: one dress, originally $108; one pair of super-skinny red jeans, originally $88; a leopard print top, originally $29; two sleeveless tunic-length tops (one with a scarf!), one originally $48 and one $34.

There and back in about an hour. Nothing like finding uber-bargains (that actually fit) to cheer up a woman who hates shopping.

And now my aching shoulder decrees that I stop. It doesn’t understand that I don’t have time for the pain. Getting old is for the birds. Except I get five grandchildren for my aches and efforts!

Family affair, finale

Tonight will mark 30 years since my father died at 48 of a cancer that has a 90 percent survival rate when caught early and a 10 percent when caught late. Colon cancer is even preventable when caught in the precancerous polyp stage. Get your colonoscopies, people. Please. 

This is the last in a series about his illness and dying, which was in every way a family affair. If I’m a bit off on some details, forgive me. I wrote nothing down at the time, so everything is recreated from memory.

And, just like that, it’s 30 years later. Unceremoniously the hours pass, and more easily than anticipated. But I’m still dreading 10:30 tonight.

As TP sings, indeed, the waiting is the hardest part.

Unceremoniously is how Daddy would want it to pass. He didn’t want to be a bother or a burden, and one of the last gifts he gave his three girls, when he learned his prognosis wasn’t good, was the preplanning of his funeral.

He picked his burial spot under a tree in Pinecrest Memorial Park – he wanted it to be inconveniently far from North Little Rock so we wouldn’t spend time at his grave. He told Mother he wanted us to go on with our lives.

He also decreed that we should look pretty at his funeral; no funereal attire for his girls.

The day of the funeral was still one of the hardest days of my life. We’d spent so much time being strong that a meltdown was overdue.

He died on a Saturday night; along with Mother, Cathy and me were Cathy’s husband, my friend Angela, and my parents’ best friends. Their inner circle made a respectful ring around us in the perimeter of the room.

The nurses who loved him were there too, and they cried. It was a nice death, as far as dying goes.

Some random memories from the waning months: Daddy had a British male nurse – Neil, I think, was his name – who told us Daddy had a “very British sense of humor.” I guess that explained his love of Benny Hill, which he watched regularly on AETN, laughing until the tears ran.

His wry sense of humor extended to the portrait photo he and Mother had shot after he was very ill. Daddy called it “my going away photo.” We didn’t think it was funny. Well, it was kind of funny.

I prefer the family shots from when he was a healthy 36. My grandfather had this faded one in a frame until the day he died, a few years after his only son.

The Cartwrights of Indian Hills: Bob at 36, Willette at 34, chipmunk-cheeked, pre-braces Laura at 14, and Cathy at 11.

Daddy watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood a lot during his illness. He said he’d have loved it when he was a little boy. Ben and Liz loved it too, when they were little, and now Jude does.

That’s a nice connection.

Daddy's "AMC" girl, Brooke (played by Julia Barr)

Rosemary Prinz, as Penny Hughes on "ATWT"

He also watched All My Children  – he particularly liked Brooke. When I was a toddler he came home for lunch and watched As the World Turns with Mother. He particularly liked “Poor Penny,” as he called her.

My children, at 2 and 3, thought nothing was unusual about visiting Grandbob at the hospital. Ben would load his backpack with toys so he and Daddy could play on the bed. They’d scamper ahead of me to the information desk to get their visitors’ badges; people grew to know them and where they were headed.

Liz stood on Daddy’s bed and showed him her 2nd-birthday Strawberry Shortcake dress and “big-girl” Strawberry Shortcake panties. Daddy was so impressed.

He was impressed by everything his grandkids did.

One of Daddy’s final wishes was to play with a puppy again. A very caring nurse smuggled a golden retriever puppy under her camel wool coat up the elevator to the 10th floor of Baptist Medical Center, which was the oncology/hospice ward in those days. She plopped the pup on my dad’s bed and he was a happy little boy again for a while.

Shortly after that he lost the ability to talk and the memories aren’t so good, so I’ll stop here with a final thought.

It’s odd being several years older than your father.

A family affair, part three

April 24 will mark 30 years since my father died at 48 from a cancer that is highly treatable, when caught early – even preventable. Get your colonoscopies, people. Please. 

This is part three of a series about his illness and dying, which was in every way a family affair. If I’m a bit off on some details, forgive me. I wrote nothing down at the time, so everything is recreated from memory.

Mother tried to keep her tone nonchalant when she called to tell me that Daddy’d gone for a physical, and the doctor had found something, a spot on his lung, and needed him to come in the next day for a follow-up.

It was probably nothing, she said, but she wanted me to know she’d be accompanying him to the doctor, in case I tried to find her.

I put the heavy beige phone receiver  back in its cradle, turned around and was surprised when my knees buckled and I slid down the wall to the floor. My husband rushed over asking what was wrong.

“Daddy has cancer and he’s going to die,” I said, bursting into tears. Randy grabbed me by the upper arms and pulled me up, asking me to explain.

“You scared me to death,” he said, when I’d finished repeating what Mother had told me. “I’m sure it’s nothing; he’s healthy and he’ll be fine.”

It wasn’t and he wouldn’t.

I was shocked but not surprised by the phone call – two weeks earlier I’d had a dream from which I awoke sobbing with tears streaming down my face. My father had died suddenly of a heart attack and I was distraught – wrong disease, but the dream was so real I hadn’t been able to shake it.

The day of the surgery to remove the tumor, Mother, Cathy and I sat in the waiting room for what seemed like hours. When the surgeon came out, he was very frank. “It is cancer,” he began – as the wind-tunnel whoosh started in my head.

I glanced at Cathy and Mother, and when Mother’s face glazed over, I remember thinking, “I’ve got to pay attention, I’ve got to pay attention.” The phrase was a mantra that kept me focused when it would have been easy to give in to panic.

This isn't my father's actual X-ray, just a photo I snagged from the Web. His tumor was smaller, higher, and more defined, as I remember.

The doctor explained that he’d taken the entire upper lobe (“Wait! How will that work?” I fleetingly thought, but didn’t interrupt), so the lung was now cancer-free – but it was a metastasis from somewhere else and they’d have to do more tests to find the primary cancer.

In pre-Internet 1980 we had no way to look up definitions or find implications, but we knew it was bad, very bad.

I can’t speak for my sister, but that was the day I grew up. At 25, with two babies, a house, a vegetable garden, and a husband with PTSD, I’d still been, at some level “Daddy’s Little Girl,” as Mother said I called my toddler-self.

We all quickly settled in for what wouldn’t be a nearly long-enough haul through the bowels of cancer.


A family affair, part two

April 24 will mark 30 years since my father died at 48 from a cancer that is highly treatable, when caught early – even preventable. Get your colonoscopies, people. Please. 

This is part two of a series about his illness and dying, which was in every way a family affair. If I’m a bit off on some details, forgive me. I wrote nothing down at the time, so everything is recreated from memory.

Even the recommended schedule of routine colonoscopies used today would have been too late to save my father. My doctor at the time (in the early ‘80s) told me for the cancer to have progressed so far by the time Daddy was 47, when it was discovered, he had to have had it undetected since he was 43 or younger.

The modern recommendation is a colonoscopy every few years starting at 50, unless there’s a strong family history. There was, in our case – we just didn’t know.

Daddy and Aunt Pat with their dog Toby, who had his tail bobbed by a train. This was in Sullivan, Mo., before the family moved to Russellville. On the back of the photo, it says "Summer 42" in one of my grandparents' perfect cursive.

Daddy as a Russellville Cyclone around 1950.

My father was a very healthy person for most of his life. As a boy, he didn’t suffer many childhood illnesses – I know he escaped the mumps, because when I had bullfrog cheeks (as he called them) at 5, he had to stay away from me. He did have a ruptured appendix in elementary school, which required surgery.

When I was 10 and Cathy 7, the entire family had the flu. We all piled into our parents double bed and moaned. That was the only time we ever saw Daddy sick, except for sinus headaches/allergies, until high school, when he had a bout with kidney stones.

I was 16 and cried because he looked so bad. Pain literally made his face gray and we’d never seen him like that.

Like so many men of his time, Daddy never went for routine physicals. He was too busy to take off from work for such nonsense when he was the picture of health. The only doctor indulgence was for treatment of adult acne, which plagued him but wasn’t nearly as bad as he perceived. He took antibiotics for it for years, until his cancer treatment cured the acne.

Small favors, I suppose. Very small. He also lost his need for glasses during that time, and he’d been farsighted since elementary school.

Anyway, the thing that drove him to the doctor that fall of 1980 was constipation. It was something new and was driving him crazy. You may know that by the time that hits, it’s usually too late with colon cancer.

If you don’t, learn that now. Symptom-free colon cancer, caught at that stage is highly curable. Once you’ve developed symptoms or it’s spread, it’s highly lethal. You catch it in the symptomless phase with colonoscopies. If you know you have a family history, you start them early.

Daddy’s physical showed a spot on his lung. That was the first surgery and the first place the cancer was found, a metastasis from the massive tumor in his colon. Both were successfully removed (though the colon procedure was a dreadful series of mistakes at first), but back in those days, liver cancer was a death sentence.

That’s the third place the cancer showed up, not metastasized, but directly spread from the colon. Liver cancer is not a pretty death.

Daddy’s older sister, our beloved Aunt Barbara, who left us in December 2010 at a ripe – but not ripe enough – old age, had two bouts of colon cancer herself, both caught early and, as she put it, “not that big a deal.”

My husband’s grandfather and father both had early caught colon cancer and both survived it. So, again, it’s not a death sentence – but you must catch it early. And if it’s in your family, you need to start screenings early.

Cathy and my cousins and I were recommended to start at 35, considering the history. My father could have too, but, again, we didn’t know.

My grandparents didn’t have contact with their families (long story), and we only knew Daddy’s siblings. So we didn’t know my grandmother’s family was cancer central.

Aunt Barbara was able to shed some light on that in later years. My grandmother died at 69 of lymphoma – that we knew. Turns out all her siblings had cancer, her sister (died of uterine cancer) and two or three brothers – my memory is rusty – with cancer; at least one died of colon cancer and another had it. We don’t know about her parents.

We also don’t know what my lurk in the Cartwright genes, except crippling arthritis, which affected our grandfather.

Learn your family medical histories, please. Write them down and show them to your docs.

I interviewed one of my dad’s oncologists when I wrote about colon cancer as a health and fitness columnist about 12 years ago. He remembered Daddy well and was still sad about his death.

He also told me that my family history for cancer wasn’t the worst he’d seen – but that it’s one of the worst.

I’ve spent the last 30 years working to beat the odds. My doctor 30 years ago told me the genetics were so strong that out of two kids, one would get it. Cathy and I plan to prove that wrong.

This isn’t written to scare, it’s written to share knowledge and, I hope, prevent someone, anyone, from suffering an unnecessary hell on earth.

And to honor that dear man who didn’t really have a chance.

We miss you, Daddy. Some years are worse than others – and this one is tough. You should be here to see your precious great-grandkids. You’d be so proud.

18th birthday, picture of health, just like most of his life.

A family affair, part one

April 24 will mark 30 years since my father died at 48 of a cancer that is highly treatable, when caught early – even preventable. Get your colonoscopies, people. Please. 

This is part one of a series about his illness and dying, which was in every way a family affair. If I’m a bit off on some details, forgive me. I wrote nothing down at the time, so everything is recreated from memory.

The weekend Daddy slipped into a coma was a year into his devastating diagnosis, and the doctors and nurses of Baptist’s oncology unit told us that was it, the last hurrah.

My sister’s son, Robert, was 6 days old. Ben had turned 3 that week and Liz was 20 months. I was 26, Mother was 46. Cathy was 23. We were all too young and we weren’t ready.

Neither was Daddy.

In case you don’t know, let me explain that comas aren’t necessarily restful, sleep-like states. My father’s coma was of the restless or active variety. His eyes were closed, but he kept trying to get out of bed and muttering over and over that he wanted to go home.

The whole thing was more than Mother could bear. She’d been a rock through everything, but her heart was breaking, and the nurses led her to another room to sleep in an empty bed.

Aunt Barbara, my dad’s beautiful older sister, who happened to be here from Sullivan, Mo., the Cartwright’s home town, and I stayed the night with him and tried to keep him calm. When holding him down got to be too much for us, the nurses gently tied his arms to the sides of his bed.

Daddy and Aunt Barbara in happier times. This was at a family celebration at our house 10 years before he died. Beautiful, wasn't she?

That night was tough, to put it mildly. Daddy talked aloud to his mother, who died of cancer at 69 and his baby sister, who died of a heart attack at 36. We couldn’t make out what he said, but he called their names.

Aunt Barbara and I talked, quietly, all night. Daddy gradually calmed down, for the most part. Some time after the sun rose I went home to my babies.

Sunday afternoon, Mother called me, hesitantly hopeful and somewhat incredulous. “Your father’s eyes are open,” she said.

No one was sure if he was “there,” but open eyes could have been an improvement.

I grabbed a new photo of my kids, put it in a frame, and flew to the hospital. “Look, Daddy,” I said walking into his room, “I brought you a new picture of Ben and Lizzy.”

A large tear formed in his left eye and rolled down his cheek. “Sweet,” he struggled to say.

This photo of the kids elicited a response from our sleeping beauty.

Mother and I looked at each other with cautious joy – he WAS there! He was! We didn’t know to what degree, but that was a definite  coherent reaction, heart-wrenching though it was.

He didn’t say another word until he woke up again Monday afternoon, turned to Mother and said, “Willette, you’d better turn on the television. We’re going to miss the Razorback game.”

Mother had to explain that Daddy, a U of A grad and diehard Hog fan, that he had missed the game and much more. The coma had caused some mild brain damage, but, by sheer will, he pulled himself back.

Later he asked who the beautiful dark-haired woman was who stood at the foot of his bed. And talked about the light in the upper corner of his room. Aunt Barbara and I saw neither.

The dyslexia he was left with was fairly crippling for the civil engineer who crunched numbers to make a success of Cartwright Construction Company, but he developed his own methods of rehabbing his brain. He got a new address book and painstakingly copied addresses and phone numbers into it. He organized business cards.

He worked so hard.

He could never work at his office again, but by the time he died five months later, he could dial a phone number and do basic calculating.

He was so brave. And so young.

Daddy keeps an eye on Ben at my friend Kelly's law school graduation party in Fayetteville, a few months before his diagnosis. He was 46 in this photo, and I don't think anything ever made him happier than being a grandfather.