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.