When the Poop Finally Hits the X-Rays: Colon Cancer Awareness Month

At lunch the other day, I sat and people-watched while enjoying a beer and pizza alone. Do you dine solo? You should. There are few things more magical than being able to enjoy a meal prepared for you without having to answer 436 questions, take three trips to the potty, scramble to find a crayon in your purse, and exchange glances with your spouse that mean “why in the world did we decide to eat out in public with these children?”

There were business people chatting about a project, a wine dealer talking shop with the owner of the restaurant, young girls on a lunch break, and a handful of women sitting in the corner enjoying the afternoon. As I took a long sip of my delicious beer, something caught my attention. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I recognized a woman who was leaving with her friend. As she laughed with her companion, my heart thundered and I broke out in a cold sweat that was quickly chased by a collection of burning tears in my eyes.

It couldn’t be. There was absolutely no way. She looked and sounded all too familiar, but I knew it wasn’t who I thought it was.

Once I composed myself and wiped away the tears, I fumbled to compose a text to a friend in California who would understand what I had just experienced.

Me: Sitting at a restaurant for lunch after a client meeting, I see a lady leave who looks like and laughed like Lisa Marie. It was very surreal.

Her response: *sunshine emoticon* *winkie kiss emoticon*

You see, Lisa Marie died from colon cancer almost nine years ago. She was diagnosed in 2006, a few days after Fiesta. Like many people do, we over-ate all the fried things for a week. Finally, at the end of the week, while standing outside a port-a-john in the middle of King William, she declared that she hadn’t pooped in days and this was not the way a week of glorious bingeing should end. A trip to her primary care physician resulted in prescription of poop inducers, none of which helped. She called me three or four days after that from an ambulance—she felt so unbelievably awful, she needed to go to the emergency room. Two physicians dismissed it as the need for more fiber, and that’s when the poop hit the X-rays.

She confessed that she had eaten enough fiber to clear over a decade’s worth of bad eating. Something. Was. Wrong.

A general surgeon happened to be walking by during this ruckus, took a look at her films, and declared what I was starting to dread: a tumor. A big ol’ honkin’ tumor in her colon, creating a blockage. Now was not the time for me to say, “Man, it took a pain in the ass to get some attention around here!” so I waited until the next day. Surgery was scheduled quickly, and she asked me to come with her and her mother to the consult to ask the tough questions.

Me? Who was I to be the Tough Guy, Keeper of the Notes, and Keeping Things Real?

But then she said, “You are like a sister. And you’re a fighter. And I need you.”

Let me back up a bit here. I met Lisa Marie in early 2002, at a friend’s The Bachelor watch party (the same friend I sent the text to, and back when the The Bachelor was new).

Wine and bad television: always best with friends.

We became fast friends, sharing a love of all things food, cheese, and wine. We would make plans to explore the city (there was no feed scene back then), and basically lived by #TreatYoSelf and #IDoWhatIWant. She became a sister to me when I needed it most, having moved back to San Antonio after a terrible and messy break-up. She gave me perspective, support, and encouraged me to be the ME I wasn’t.

There was no way I wasn’t going to be with her through this.

Surgery and chemo followed, with much laughter and continued shenanigans. Every time she went in for scans, we’d write with marker over her butt, “If you like what you see, call me!” Chemo rotations ended with trips to Sonic for Route 44s of Cherry Lime slushes. When her rounds were finally complete, we celebrated with wine and cheese, trips to the Bijou (this was before Netflix, y’all), and tentatively moving forward with life. She returned to work and life with the same vigor as before. We’d spend many conversations talking about our dating lives (or lack thereof), about the future and its possibilities.

Cue March 2008, when she starts feeling lousy again.

Four MRIs, three CT scans, and more than 50 X-rays later, the diagnosis is cancer again. Only this time it’s in her femurs and a vertebrate. 

Her surgeon fused four of her lumbar vertebrae, as L2 was completely destroyed by the tumor as was half of L3. The tumor and her the second lumbar vertebrae were removed, with a cage-like implant to fill the space and two titanium rods to give support. Physical therapy was to follow radiation therapy. Through all of this, Lisa Marie remained strong and positive. Didn’t make it suck any less. I remember feeling pretty selfish after her surgery, because I was focused on relationships and a new job. I started to think more and more about the brevity and frailty of life, its constant reminders to stop thinking and start doing. People live in fear of doing just that, and it’s unfair of me to expect them to live as I do. Fear is still a poor excuse to not live every day to the fullest, and Lisa Marie was a reminder of this.

A few weeks later, scans showed that the cancer was metastatic. Her doctors, who at this point believed I was her sister, shared with me the plan to manage her pain and illnesses in an effort to keep her comfortable. She had two weeks—two months, tops.

The next day, on my way to visit, I played Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” I know the song has only to do with hard times Bob had, but the chorus is really all everyone remembers:

My feet is my only carriage,
So I’ve got to push on through.
But while I’m gone:

No, woman, no cry;
No, woman, no cry.
Woman, little darlin’, say, don’t shed no tears;
No, woman, no cry.

I was determined not to let her see me cry. I didn’t want her to feel like she had to make ME feel better, because that’s the kind of person she was.

On this night, her aunties had asked a shaman to come and cleanse her, us, her room, and her care team. Then a priest came in to say a prayer over her. I had to leave at this point, as I could feel my heart in my throat and tears building their heat behind my eyes. I kissed her forehead, with a promise to return the next day.

Walking to the elevator, I felt so much anger and fear filling my gut. I was angry for all that she wouldn’t experience and angry at cancer. I was scared that she wouldn’t be breathing in the morning, and I was scared of saying goodbye.

I had planned to fly up to my college reunion weekend and to visit my mother for Mother’s Day in New England a few weeks later, and Lisa Marie would hear none of my talk of canceling. I took off the Friday before I flew out to spend in entirety with her. We talked of silly things and ate some Whataburger between naps, and I held her hand. Her aunt finally shooed me off, knowing I likely hadn’t packed. I joked with Lisa Marie that I was bringing her back some saltwater taffy from the Jersey Shore so she had better wait seven days for my return. She smiled, reached up to hug me, and told me she loved me.

A mutual friend kept me posted of her condition while I was traveling, and my anxiety was running high the next Friday before my return. My friends encouraged me to look for standby options, but there were none any earlier than my red-eye. When I landed somewhere in the middle of the country, I had a missed call and voicemail from her aunt with the words I had been dreading. Lisa Marie had passed away while I was boarding the plane in Boston. She’d have more information for me when I got home, so I should call her once I was settled.

I lost it. In the middle of an airport in who-knows-where, I stumbled to a row of seats near a food court and ugly cried. It was the kind of full-bodied sobbing that strangers avoided, unsure of entering the air of overwhelming grief that poured out of me with each exhalation. I called my mother to let her know, and to talk me down. I shoved some greasy food in my mouth and made my connection, numb to everything around me.

Services were a few days later. A good friend watched over me, spending a few nights at my house and making sure I was presentable for the services. I couldn’t walk up to Lisa’s casket at the memorial service or the funeral. I didn’t want to forget my last happy memory of her, smiling at my ridiculous request to wait for me to return before she could leave.

Lisa Marie walked among us for 38 years. I am grateful to have known her, and to have been gifted with her endless patience, curiosity, compassion, and goodness. She carried herself with grace and humor through her last days, and I can only hope to meet my end in the same way.

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in men and women combined in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that this year 136,830 people will be diagnosed and 50,310 will die from this disease. In fact, the researchers estimate that the incidence rate of colon cancer in women ages 20–34 will increase by 90 percent by 2030.

Because colon cancer often doesn’t cause symptoms until it is advanced, the American Cancer Society recommends regular colon cancer screening for most people starting at age 50. People with a family history of the disease or who have certain other risk factors should talk with their doctor about beginning screening at a younger age. Several different tests can be used to screen for colon cancer. 

If you think you are at risk or have concerning symptoms, talk to your doctor.

March is National Colon Cancer Awareness Month. For information on screening, events, and National Dress in Blue Day on March 3rd, visit the Colon Cancer Alliance.

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