Sunday, April 22, 2007

Knowledge is a powerful thing

In March 2006, just before we left for Cuba, my good friend and colleague, Linda, gave me a wonderful gift - the following article was her gift to me (along with some sunscreen)... I thought I would share this with you so that you might get a better understanding of this dreaded disease and how wonderful a husband I have. Thanks Linda! And dont' worry - I never thought for a moment that you weren't supportive. I actually realize how neurotic I can get. Thanks again... and keep writing!

March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month in Canada and this year I know more about the disease than Iever dreamed I would. For example, I know that colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the country [i]. I also know it's very treatable if detected early, yet it’s the second leading cause of death from cancer [ii] in Canada. I know these things because just over a year ago my friend and colleague, Renée, began to voice fears about her 38-year old husband having colorectal cancer.

I didn’t really take her seriously in the beginning because Renée is one of those people who can’t help giving herself a good medical scare. She loves to pour over medical literature, yet she’s the first to admit that she shouldn’t be allowed within miles of a medical textbook. Internet medical information sites should also be permanently blocked on her computer. That’s because, in her case, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. No sooner does she read up on a disease than she or someone in her family suddenly exhibits the symptoms. I, on the other hand, am the total opposite. The less I know about any number of diseases that could be lying in wait to attack, the happier I am. Somewhere between the two of us of there’s a happy, healthy medium.

So when Renée began to talk about the possibility of her husband, Tony, having colorectal cancer, I scoffed at the suggestion. I pooh-poohed her concerns and repeatedly told her that it was highly unlikely. My goal was to reassure her, but I don’t think I did a very good job. I probably didn’t come across as entirely sympathetic either, since I was sure her imagination was working overtime again. Other than making frequent trips to the washroom (it’s amazing how close colleagues share the most intimate family details), Tony had no symptoms whatsoever. He was as strong as a horse, hadn’t lost an ounce of weight and had a hearty appetite. And after all, colorectal cancer at 38 years old, well, what were the odds? In retrospect, I know I wasn’t as supportive as I could have been and I have regretted it ever since.

As it turns out,Tony was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in December of 2004 despite the fact that none of the high risk factors for the disease applied to him. These factors include a family history of colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or a previous removal of a polyp or tumour. Risk also increases with age, and people over age 50 are at a higher risk. But, as Tony discovered, cancer doesn't follow any set rules or always pay attention to risk factors.

Since then, he has undergone three surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy. The first operation to remove his colon revealed metastases to the liver. He had to go under the knife two more times to completely erase the tumours from his liver, and is now waiting for a final round of chemotherapy. Through it all, he has maintained a hugely positive attitude and an impressive sense of humour. And through it all, Renée's extensive reading and research has been a great asset. Her knowledge has put them in the driver’s seat when it came to treatment options and choices instead of being passengers along for the ride. The information obtained from Tony’s doctors, patient groups, medical literature and other sources allowed them to evaluate and choose the best course of action for Tony’s circumstances. Now both she and Tony are putting that knowledge to good use. Together they are promoting awareness about the screening, detection and treatment of colorectal cancer among their circle of friends, family and acquaintances. Family members in particular are now sensitive to the fact that there is a history of the disease in the family. As well, several of his colleagues have undergone screening as a result of Tony’s story.

So, thanks to Renée, I know a lot more about colorectal cancer than I did just over a year ago. I know that an average of 377 Canadians will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer every week [iii]. I know that one in 14 men and one in 16 women is expected to develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime [iv]. I know that colorectal cancer can develop overtime with no signs or symptoms and that an average of 162 Canadians will die from it every week. The most valuable thing I’ve learned is that wide screening could significantly reduce this death rate [v]. And thanks to Renée, I’ve learned that knowledge is power, and that this information could just possibly save my life.

[i] Canadian Cancer Society/National Cancer Institute of Canada: Canadian Cancer Statistics 2005
[ii] Canadian Cancer Society,,3182,3278_14447_371429_langId-en,00.html[iii],3182,3278_14447_371429_langId-en,00.html

UPDATE: Since Linda wrote this article, Tony (aka Richard), has undergone two more procedures for his liver: radiofrequency thermal ablation and embolization. As well, he completed an additional two chemo regimens and is now on his third - so fifth in total. Unfortunately, the liver metastases have progressed in spite of the last chemo (which ended in Jan 07). We are hoping that the embolization and this new chemo treatment will be effective in shrinking these tumours.

NOTE: Tony's cancer is attributable to Gardner's Syndrome, a variant of familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP). Approximately 1% of all colorectal cancer cases are attributable to FAP close to one third of these have no family history of the disease.

I apologize for the long post... but thought it was well worth it.

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