The Dreaded C Word

I was a lucky kid (despite spending a good portion of my young life hiding behind my mother because I was painfully shy), and at 28-years-old, I still consider myself to be incredibly lucky to this day. Growing up, not only was I unfamiliar with many life-threatening diseases or medical ailments, but most of the medical conditions I knew about came from playing Oregon Trail on my computer. To me, they didn’t even exist in real life.

Growing up, I had asthma and occasional stomach upset, but my parents and grandparents were healthy for the most part. Cancer was something that hardly ever crossed my mind. To me, having cancer was as unlikely as getting rubella or diphtheria, which always ended in a game over on Oregon Trail. Nearly all of my grandparents had cancer at one time or another, but they always beat the nasty disease early on and we never heard much about it. None of my grandparents died of cancer, so as far as I knew, cancer was totally curable. It wasn’t until high school until I really started hearing more about the nasty six-letter “C word.”

Two of my closest friends had parents that battled the disease, which was absolutely devastating for their families and friends. But even then, cancer sounded like a horrible nightmare that only sometimes came true. Nobody really knew why some people would get cancer and others wouldn’t (unless it was lung cancer – there was never any shortage of information that linked smoking cigarettes to lung cancer). It was one of those things where you just didn’t think it would happen to you or your family. Perhaps it was ignorance or perhaps it was simply choosing positivity and not living in fear. It wasn’t until I was around 24 years old when I actually started to fear cancer, and that’s when the anxiety really started.

 

An abrupt introduction to cancer

Fast forward to January 2014. After six months of waiting for my mom’s colonoscopy appointment to arrive, it was finally the day where I knew things would finally go back to normal, or they’d never be the same again. My mom had symptoms that pointed to food poisoning or even a sensitive stomach, but after doing plenty of online research, her symptoms kept pointing to one thing: colon cancer.

For months and months, I prayed to God – begging and pleading that my mom’s test results come back normal and that it not be cancer. Contrary to the success rate of cancer in my family’s history, I think I truly believed that cancer was always a death sentence, thanks to the media which is constantly highlighting the negative cancer stories (although I know far more information about cancer now than I could have possibly known then).

About fifteen minutes after my mom was taken back for her colonoscopy, the nurse came up to get my brother Colton and I from the lobby. “Oh, that was fast!” I said cheerfully. Then, suddenly my cheerfulness turned to fear. “What – is everything OK?” I asked. I quickly packed up my laptop (I had been working remotely from the lobby) and fumbled to get my things together as Colton and I were led back to the hospital room. “Is everything OK?” I asked the nurse one more time. She told me that my mom would speak to me in a moment. I could have swore that my heart stopped – something did not seem right.

When we got back to my mom’s room, she carefully explained that there was a blockage and that they were unable to complete her colonoscopy. “A blockage?” I had asked. “What do you mean?” My mom explained that the doctor told her that the blockage looked like a tumor, and that it could be cancer. Just like that, I remember breaking down and feeling the anxiety, sickness, and sadness consume my entire being. Just as I had feared, cancer had caught up to us and my family was the next unlucky victim of the disgustingly cruel disease.

My mom’s doctor came in and explained that she was setting up an appointment for my mom to have a CT scan and bloodwork done later that day, and then we’d wait to find out if it really was cancer, and if it had spread. The thought of it spreading hadn’t even crossed my mind yet, so I remember telling myself that “it really could get a lot worse than it just being cancer.” I cried and cried for the next week as we awaited those dreaded results. I prayed, pleaded, and begged just like I had done the past six months prior. “Please please please say that it hasn’t spread,” I begged. I was already devastated – how could I possibly handle any worse news?

 

Don’t Google the “C Word”

I had made the mistake of Googling colon cancer and learned all about it, which was the first mistake I made. I already knew that the media (medical experts included) only share information about the worst case scenarios. I thought I was preparing myself by doing research, when really I was just multiplying my anxiety and doing the worst thing imaginable.

As we waited for the doctor to come in and tell us the news, I remember feeling absolutely sick to my stomach. Since my mom’s original diagnosis, I hadn’t been able to think clearly. My mind was in a constant fog and I was no longer sleeping. I couldn’t eat. I was sad all of the time and all I could manage to do was cry and think about losing my best friend – my mom. My mom was only 53 years old, was in great shape, and had done nothing in her life to deserve this. I was so angry!

The doctor and her care team pulled up the scans and showed us where the tumor was sitting. Then she showed us where the other cancer cells were found, including on her liver. I remember thinking that there needed to be some kind of exception – clearly it couldn’t be stage 4 just because cancer cells were found outside of the colon lining. It just couldn’t be, or the doctor would have said so right away. But then, I heard those horrible words that I had been praying to never hear. The doctor came right out and said “well obviously stage 4 isn’t where we wanted you to be…” and that’s when I broke down. The words hit me like a weapon – I was shot down and was really struggling to get back up again.

How dare that bitch come right out and startle us like that, completely out of the blue? Do these doctors not have any compassion at all? How could they possibly know what it feels like to hear that type of news so suddenly? The doctor almost seemed like she was annoyed that she had to stop talking until I was done bawling. “Do you need a minute?” I remember her asking. I couldn’t believe her lack of compassion and the coldness in her voice.

At the time (even though now I know differently) I assumed that stage 4 meant that I should be preparing for the worst. I was in a very ignorant, fragile state, and I was willing to believe anything that the doctors or the internet told me. In fact, when my mom or I would ask the doctors (at the highly reputable Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the University of Minnesota) if she should change her diet, eat healthier, exercise, or do ANYTHING differently at all – they would shake their heads and say “nope, keep doing what you’re already doing!” They were only concerned with her starting chemotherapy as soon as possible and then scheduling her surgery, followed by more chemo.

So, you mean to tell me that even though colon cancer is oftentimes a diet/lifestyle-related cancer, that she shouldn’t change a thing about her diet or lifestyle – the things that could have potentially contributed to her colon cancer in the first place? I mean, they could have at least told her that it couldn’t hurt. Instead, they encouraged her to eat whatever she wanted. They even encouraged her to eat fast food, sugary protein drinks, and desserts during chemo to ensure that she kept her weight on. Who knew that chemo was a free ticket to eat or drink whatever you wanted?

Thankfully, I have a mind of my own and so does my mom, so we were able to make our own interpretations and she quickly cleaned up her diet, worked on eliminating extra stressors in her life, and focused on eating a clean, organic, and a mostly whole grain/plant-based diet. She also began juicing carrots and other organic vegetables daily (stay tuned for delicious juice recipes later). She also started taking daily walks, bike rides, and took her first yoga class with me.

Once chemo started, it was difficult for her to stay on this healthy path because she didn’t have the energy or the appetite for it, but I’m thankful that she did as best as she could before and after her chemo treatments.

 

Focusing on the positive

Fast forward to July of 2016, 2 ½ years after my mom’s cancer diagnosis, a major surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, more than one overnight hospital stay at the Mayo Clinic, several horrible chemotherapy treatments at the University of Minnesota, a major life-changing diet and lifestyle change, and a new outlook on life, I am thankful that my mom is here with me to see the launch of this blog. It hasn’t been easy and my mom has worked her butt off to be in such great health today. I am just so thankful that she took matters into her own hands and went above and beyond her conventional cancer treatment protocol.

Even though my mom has been feeling great, it’s never easy worrying about the future. As much as I try to concentrate on the present moment and being thankful for what is going on around me, it is very difficult to remain positive at all times. The worry and fear of the future is too much to handle sometimes. It’s like a constant weight pulling me down, reminding me that things could change at any moment.

None of us knows how much time on earth any of us has left – we don’t need a cancer diagnosis to remind us of that. We don’t need movies and books reminding us that cancer is deadly. I can’t tell you how tired I am of reading a book or watching a movie just to find out that someone has died of cancer. Really, writers? Can you not think of anything more creative than cancer? Yes, cancer is a reality of today’s world, but people do die of other things besides cancer.

For example, 614,348 people died of heart disease in 2015 compared to the 591,699 people who died of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last time I checked (which was only several moments ago) cancer was not the nation’s top killer. So why do I hear about people dying of cancer left and right, especially when I’m trying to be entertained through a book a or movie? Yes, the number of people with cancer is outrageous, but people do die of other things too. Heart disease, stroke, alzheimer’s, and diabetes all deserve credit too.

 

Heart disease is important, too

Shortly after my mom’s cancer diagnosis, my dad was incredibly lucky to have noticed the symptoms of a possible heart condition. He realized that he was having pain and shortness of breath so he continued to see his doctor for tests. Thankfully, he found out just in time that he had a blockage on his left anterior descending artery.

Long story short, he had an angioplasty performed and was incredibly lucky that he had the procedure done when he did. I proceeded to send him book after book about choosing a plant-based diet to prevent or reverse heart disease, and he’s still a work in progress today. I can only hope that one day he will go 100% plant-based!

 

Some of the books that I sent him and would also recommend to you include:

 

Not only is a plant-based diet effective at reducing your risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, but the list of benefits goes on and on. If your own health isn’t enough inspiration, learning about the ethical aspect of the meat and dairy industry just might do it!

Alex Beane

Alex is a freelance writer who holds a BA in Professional and Creative Writing. She has a strong interest in veganism, holistic health, and emotional and physical wellbeing. When she isn’t reading and writing about health and wellness, Alex is trying new plant based recipes in the kitchen or can be found volunteering with a Minneapolis-based animal rights organization or local rabbit rescue. Find Alex on LinkedIn or view her writing portfolio.