Follow-Up After Colon Cancer Helped Save My Life
In October 2003, when I was 38 years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. It was devastating—but it may have saved my life a decade later. I know that sounds odd, but in a follow-up appointment after entering remission from colon cancer, my doctor discovered a new, unrelated cancer growing in my body. Without that appointment, I don’t know if it would have been caught so quickly.
My first cancer was discovered when I visited my doctor because I was having some issues going to the bathroom. My bowel movements were pencil-thin and ribbon-like. After his initial examination, the doctor told me he suspected cancer. It was confirmed the next day. To hear you have rectal cancer is pretty shocking and mind numbing. But my radiation oncologist gave me hope, telling me that people didn’t die from colon cancer anymore. That was such a relief to hear.
The Cancer Returned
I had surgery in Columbia, SC to remove the tumor in my colon, followed by radiation and chemotherapy, which I thought cured me. But a year later, I had a recurrence. A part of the tumor returned at the margin—the area where my colon was stitched back together after the tumor was removed. At that point, my colorectal surgeon recommended I have surgery to remove my rectum and part of my colon.
Before committing to this surgery, I went to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and Duke University Cancer Center in Durham, NC for second opinions. The oncologists at both places made the same recommendation so I chose Duke since it was closer to home. Once again, I underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.
An Unrelated Cancer Strikes
A month after my last chemotherapy session, not only was I free of cancer, but I met Renay, who later became my wife. I went for regular follow-up appointments to ensure the cancer hadn’t returned, and we moved on and enjoyed our life together for more than a decade. We were physically active; I golfed regularly and Renay and I went hiking often. But despite this healthy lifestyle, last summer I developed a slight cough that wouldn’t go away. I asked my local oncologist about it during a regular follow-up visit, but a chest x-ray didn’t show anything too concerning—the doctor thought maybe it was a case of walking pneumonia.
During that visit, my oncologist also checked my tumor markers as part of my normal follow-up routine. Markers are certain proteins in your blood that increase in number if you have cancer. My previous check-up eight months earlier had shown healthy levels of markers, but this time, they were elevated. After more tests, I was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, stage 3B. I was stunned.
I was never a smoker and my exposure to second-hand smoke was limited to bars I frequented in my 20s while out with friends. Twelve healthy years had passed since my last cancer treatment. I had beaten colon cancer and suddenly this came along and knocked me down. I couldn’t help but ask, “why?” This cancer is completely unrelated to the earlier colon cancer. It’s a separate disease. It came out of nowhere. But we caught it because of the colon cancer follow-up, and for that, I’m grateful.
Starting Treatment Again
Today, I’ve put my life in the hands of an excellent oncologist, Dr. Jeffrey Crawford, Chief of the Department of Medicine in the Division of Medical Oncology at Duke. I began with a six-week treatment plan consisting of chemotherapy in two-week cycles, along with radiation every weekday. My wife and I stayed near Duke during the week and went home on weekends. The chemo was pretty rough, but I stayed positive and busy playing golf. Unfortunately, despite treatment, my lung cancer progressed to stage 4. I’m now on a new chemotherapy regimen at Duke and I’m happy to say we’re seeing positive results.
As someone who has been diagnosed with cancer twice, I can relate to people in similar situations. When you’re told you have cancer, you can do one of two things: you can either fight the fight, or you can give in. I believe you have to keep fighting. It makes me think of the movie, The Shawshank Redemption. As the famous line goes, you either “get busy living, or get busy dying.” I choose to get busy living and see what each new day brings.
Shane Caldwell lives in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife, and is an avid golfer and hiker.