My Best Christmas Present This Year Came Early
Yesterday I got an early Christmas present.
It came without wrapping, bows, or mistletoe, but it was the best present I could have wished for.
It was the gift of a clean bill of health.
My gastroenterologist, Dr. Boynton, delivered the present to me after I woke from my fifth colonoscopy in the past ten years. “All clear,” he said. “You’re good for another five years.”
I thanked him profusely, this man who had saved my life, and followed Rachael out of the surgical office to the car. It was a cold, raw day, rain on the way, but I didn’t care. I was alive for another day, and I was filled with gratitude.
It was ten years ago this month that I went in for my first routine colonoscopy. I had just turned fifty-three and had been putting off the procedure because, well, I was a busy guy, and who wants to have a colonoscopy? There was no history of colon cancer in my family and everything was working fine down there.
But at the urging of a colleague at work, I went in and had the procedure done. I was fully expecting to be given a bag of cheese crackers afterward and told to come back in ten years for my next roto-rooter. But when I woke up from the anesthesia, the doctor asked me to step into a private room for a chat.
It was a good thing I came in, Dr. Boynton told me with a grave face. During the scope he had found a large, overgrown polyp in my lower right descending colon. More testing would be done, but he was certain from the looks of it that the polyp was cancerous.
Follow-up tests confirmed his hunch. The tumor was malignant. But the good news—the incredibly good news—was that my other organs looked clear. The cancer had not metastasized.
A month later, I had surgery to remove about a foot of my lower right colon, along with fifteen lymph nodes. Two of those lymph nodes tested positive—the nasty overgrown polyp had grown through my colon and was starting to spread. I was officially diagnosed with stage 3a colon cancer, and four weeks later, I began six months of chemotherapy.
What started as a routine procedure had turned into a full-blown cancer journey. Let me tell you: I had gone through all kinds of adversity in my life up to that point—divorce, broken bones, a construction accident, two episodes of clinical depression. But getting that diagnosis of cancer was a wake-up call of a different stripe. It was like a hand had come down from the clouds and slapped me across the face—
Wake up, sleepyhead! Life is fragile! Savor every moment and do everything you can to keep the flame going!
So, with the help of my family, I bore down and sat down in that chemo chair every two weeks. I’d heard of chemotherapy before, but naïve person that I was, I didn’t really know what it was all about. I didn’t understand that the idea is to kill living cells, all of them, including any free-ranging cancer cells that might have been left behind after the surgery.
There was a very good chance it would work, but there was no guarantee. There’s no guarantee of anything. There’s only taking the odds and hoping for the best.
I went back for my first return colonoscopy on my one-year anniversary of finding the tumor. All looked good, Dr. Boynton told me afterward. Come back in three years for a repeat.
About the same time, I got my one-year CAT scan. My internal organs were still clear.
The key was the five-year mark, my oncologist told me. If I got to five years and my scans were still clear, I could say with 99.9% confidence that I was okay.
So I kept going to my appointments. Three-month checkups with the oncologist became six-months checkups, then annual checkups. Once a year, I went for my scans. On the third anniversary, I paid another visit to Dr. Boynton. All good, he told me again. Come back again in three years.
Every month that went by, every test that showed negative, took me one step closer to a clean bill of health. At year five, when my scans came back clear again, my oncologist told me I didn’t need any more. But keep going for those colonoscopies, he said.
At year six, I had my fourth colonoscopy. By now, Dr. Boynton and I were old friends. He called me “the Christmas miracle”—the guy who had walked into the center a few days before Christmas and had his life saved by a routine procedure.
He deemed me all clear and told me to come back in four years.
Which took me to yesterday. I have gotten to be a pro at having colonoscopies. Doing the prep is never fun, just as sitting in that chemo chair every two weeks was no fun. But you do it because, well, you value your health and you’re willing to follow the odds of modern medical science.
I couldn’t have been happier when I woke up from the propofol and got that visit from Dr. Boynton giving me the good news. “See you in five years,” he said with a smile.
I am alive today because ten years ago, a colleague urged me to do something I didn’t want to do, and because a highly competent GI doctor found a ticking time bomb inside me.
I’m alive today because a highly competent surgeon cut out that time bomb, and a highly competent oncologist and his team of experts gave me a cocktail of drugs that wiped out free-ranging cancer cells.
I am alive today because of the miracles of modern medicine and all the doctors and nurses who wend those miracles every day of their working careers. There are too many of them to send thank-you cards to, so this is my card.
Thank you, Dr. Boynton. God bless every one of you. You're all heroes in my book.
P.S.: If you’re over the age of forty-five and haven’t gotten your colorectal screening yet, please make a resolution to schedule it in the new year.
Of all the cancer screenings out there, a colonoscopy is one of the most effective at catching and preventing cancer deaths. Check out the stats in the attached picture.
Isn’t your life worth a day and a half of inconvenience?
Swallow your pride and just do it.
Happy holidays and best wishes for a healthy, peaceful 2023.