Sylvia Karol, 1924-1991
My mother, Sylvia Karol, was a wonderful, life-affirming woman, also a grandmother and businesswoman. Born of Hungarian immigrants, mom worked in our grandparents' bakery in New Brunswick, N.J., and ached to get away from her small-town roots. When Grandma wouldn’t allow her to go to college (the family simply couldn’t afford it), Mom decided to leave home at 18 the only other safe way she could think of: she got married. Fortunately, it was love at first sight for her and my father, Reuben, a Rutgers graduate who became one of the top civil engineers in the country. They loved, laughed, lived, and traveled together for 48 years, and had three kids and three grandkids. (Oh, and by the way, Leslee and Diane, she loved me best!)
Mom was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1989. Unfortunately, it had already advanced to her liver, and with big tumors on both sides, it was inoperable. The chemo they gave her extended her life, in a good way, for exactly two years to the day that she was diagnosed. But it couldn’t stop the inevitable. She died in October 1991, at the age of 66, leaving a gaping hole in the emotional lives of our family, one that can never be filled. I think about Mom every day, and sometimes, when I do, I am angry that she never was advised earlier in her life to have a colonoscopy. Had she done so, there’s a good chance that she might be alive today.
Colon cancer starts in the colon, and it begins as little polyps, or bumps, along the lining of the colon. As with other cancers, sometimes these "bumps" are benign, and sometimes they’re cancerous. With a colonoscopy — in which your doctor inserts a small tube, with a camera on the end, into your rectum, and checks the state of your colon — polyps can be detected early. Precancerous polyps can be removed before they have a chance to metastasize, or spread. (The most common places colon cancer cells travel to are the liver, lungs, and lymph nodes.) The procedure is considered outpatient surgery and there’s little or no pain, just sometimes small discomfort from the air they blow into your colon, in order to allow the camera to move easily.
It’s a procedure which literally takes about 15-20 minutes, and though you’ll have to devote a day or two to it (including the preparation, when you empty your colon as best you can), isn’t it worth the time to extend your life, or the lives of those you love? I’ve had colonoscopies every two to three years since Mom died, and during several of those polyps were removed which might have turned cancerous had they gone undetected. This was the case following my last colonoscopy, in December 2008; They clipped a precancerous polyp, biopsied it, told me about it, and gave me a clean bill of health. See, they caught it in time. Colon cancer is one of the biggest killers, and yet the only one for which prevention can be so easy.
As someone from a family with a history of colon cancer, and someone who has a tendency to grow polyps in the colon, I’ll be back for another go-round in a year or so. Personally, I’d advocate regular colonscopies starting at age 30, or even younger if there’s a family history of cancer. Why this simple, life-saving procedure is not more discussed or talked about has a lot to do with the area of the body involved — namely, your ass — which is generally not considered a subject for polite conversation. I say, screw it. If you want to save your ass, and, better yet, have all those you love hanging around for a long time, see your doctor. Have a colonoscopy. Spread the word.
On the day Mom died, she was bloated (some of her organs had stopped functioning properly); bedridden (we’d moved a double bed into the living room since she could no longer climb the stairs on her own); and taking a morphine drip. Her lips were dry and caked with flaking skin. She’d been bedridden for a week or so, not bad considering that for the previous two years she had kept up her active lifestyle, travelling to Boston to see my sisters and her grandchildren on a regular basis, going on cruises with my father, and playing tennis two or three times a week. When even the morphine wasn’t helping the pain, she looked at me, my father, and sisters, surrounding her on the bed, one last time. And then she breathed her last. It was the most supremely sad day of my life, and the only comfort I could take was that she was no longer in any pain.
Cancer is such a horrible way to go. Colon cancer can be prevented. Why wouldn’t you, if you could? Now, mostly, when I think about mom, I remember the good things. I have to, because the bad is too horrific to recall. She’ll always be with me, in my heart and mind. But I can never hug or kiss her again, and I can’t help wondering what she’d think of this event, or that crisis, whether she’d still be loving Oprah, one of her favorite shows, and how she’d look. She would’ve been 88 this year.
Let us now take a humor break. Go here to read humorist Dave Barry's hysterical take on getting a colonoscopy. I have rarely laughed out loud so often in the space of 10 minutes. (It helps if you've already gone through the procedure yourself). But please come back here and visit the Colon Cancer Alliance (link just below) for some more sobering news.
I hope to God that you never lose anyone to cancer. (My best friend, Craig Hamrick, also succumbed to the disease at the too-young age of 39 in 2006. See here for more.) A colonoscopy is one of the best ways to, at least partly, ensure that your loved ones stay healthy. You can start by visiting the Colon Cancer Alliance — click on the logo at left.
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Copyright 2012 by Michael Karol