This adorable picture of my dad and my sister, Jean, was taken when life was simpler but not easy. Our childhoods were never that storybook-type of experience, but we did (at least) have a stable home for a while. Six years after this photo was taken, my dad was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and passed away six months later. The fragile foundation cracked.
We didn’t grow up under the umbrella of cancer. In fact, it was very rarely mentioned. There was too much other chaos in our home to really think beyond the present. As we battled a barrage of personal, mental, and emotional health issues, my sister and I connected in some atypical ways. Most importantly, we comforted each other with unequivocal support. We both shared a dark sense of humor and had come to accept that the world was harsh. But no matter what we were thrown (and it was a lot), we had each other.
Given the family history, I was told I should get my first colonoscopy at 42. But, when I was 40, my physician recommended a colonoscopy after some GI issues. I came out of sedation to be greeted by my Gastroenterologist with that face - many of you immediately know what I mean. The doctor told me that he had removed a few polyps but that one of those polyps was the largest polyp he had ever seen. I spent the next few days waiting for those results and planning for my death. I set up email accounts for each of my three young children so that I could send and store (in a time-stamped method) personal messages and treatment updates so they could see my words and writing as they grew up. I investigated how to create and store video blogs, so I could record messages for them to view on monumental occasions. I yelled at my husband for reducing the amount of life insurance we carried on me a few years back as we simultaneously pondered how we’d raise our kids while I underwent treatment. And then, the phone rang. It was benign.
After I was done crying, I immediately called my younger sister and told her to talk to her own primary care doctor at her next visit about when she should begin screenings. If I had waited until 42, what would have happened? And, if I had waited until 50 (the recommended age at that time), well, would I have been here long enough to even make it to 50? Jean asked her doctor what she needed to do, given her family history, and was told it was way too early to be concerned. After all, she was only 34!
Now, I know you know where this story is headed. You are never too young.
At 38, Jean was living her best life. We were coming out of the pandemic, and the world was returning to normalcy (or so we thought). She had just gotten married and bought her first home. She was on the tail-end of recovery from a back injury and getting back to running. Travel plans were being made, friends were reconnecting, and calendars were full. However, she was also experiencing some digestive issues that she thought might be related to food sensitivity and was tinkering with her diet a bit. Other than that, she was in great shape and feeling great. Until she wasn’t. A few weeks before her 39th birthday, she entered the hospital with what she now believed (thanks to Dr. Google) to be gallbladder issues and exited the hospital with a Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis.
Jean passed away on June 3, 2022, at the age of 39.
I spent the first few months crying, and then I decided I needed to do something. First my dad, then my sister. Who is next? While I honestly still cry most days, I am also being proactive about my future. Jean had once referred to us as “victims of our own imagination,” and I later came to believe we were actually victims of our own circumstances.
Today, I look at the faces of my three amazing kids and refuse to let their lives be impacted by colorectal cancer in the same way mine has been. They lost their aunt – but it must stop there. I will no longer be a victim. It's time to fight back! First, I joined the Colorectal Cancer Alliance as an Ally. Then I took it one step further and applied for (and was accepted as) a member of the Never Too Young Advisory Board. But I was not done yet!
I have also volunteered to help host the 2nd Annual Blue Hope Bash Chicago taking place on Thursday, May 11, at Galleria Marchetti. I do not believe that the fact this event is being held so close to the first anniversary of Jean’s passing is a coincidence. The opportunity for us to come together in support of the Alliance’s work is a meaningful way to celebrate and remember my sister and all the others whose lives have been impacted by colorectal cancer.
My sister was a major bibliophile, and I couldn’t tell her story without sharing a quote. "What's past is prologue” (William Shakespeare) seems fitting at this moment. We cannot change the past, but it sets the stage for the present and the future. Today I vow to ensure that no other family experiences the tremendous loss ours has. Tomorrow can’t wait. Please join me at the Blue Hope Bash on May 11. Together we have the power to make the mission of the Colorectal Cancer Alliance a reality – to end colorectal cancer within our lifetime. Can’t attend? Donate instead.