In 1987, I was caught up in my teaching job. At the place where I taught, life was generally a "pressure cooker," so I did not have a lot of time to pay attention to my health. I was 35 years old, and the thought of a disastrous health problem was as far from my mind as the planet Mars. 35 years old? No one thinks of cancer at 35 years old. Especially then, there was not a lot of knowledge about the importance of early detection and treatment.
Then some fateful events joined together to save my life. When I was growing up, my father's mother developed intestinal cancer. My father's brother, my uncle, later developed intestinal cancer. Then it became my father's turn. That was the link: three first-degree relatives with colon cancer.
Leading my busy life, it never dawned on me that this had anything to do with my health. Literature on this disease did not start to speak of genetic links until approximately five years after our family developed the disease. To us, it was all happenstance. While some of us had the disease, there was, in our minds, absolutely no link between this and others of us getting the disease. Later, we learned that it was Hereditary Non-Polyposis Colon Cancer (HNPCC).
Enter my stepmother. I never had a biological mother growing up, so my stepmother became my guardian. She began to nag relentlessly on the necessity of getting myself "checked." All I had heard of was the horrendous "garden hose" test (the colonoscopy), so I was not keen to go running to the doctor. But my stepmother was good because she made her nagging more horrendous than the idea of the test.
I finally went for the colonoscopy, and guess what -- there it was, one cancerous polyp, high up in the large bowel.
At the time, treatment was severe for young people with this disease. My doctor wanted to send me to Johns Hopkins University for surgery leading to the intestinal "bag" I had heard so much about. Then he made a decision that gave me back a normal life: he had the polyp assessed again by a second pathology lab. ALWAYS have a doctor who is open to different ideas and who can communicate openly with you about you.
The second lab discovered that the cancer had not even permeated the entire polyp. Because of my stepmother's nagging, we had found the polyp so early that the cancer was across the top of the polyp. This meant that a surgeon could remove the threat by doing a sub-total colectomy (partial removal of the large bowel). He got it all, with no radiation, no chemotherapy necessary. Why? Because my stepmother was a nag.
Finally, when I went to the National Institutes of Health to read up on this disease, the first book I opened said that 4 out of 5 people under 50 years old with this disease are dead within five years. The reason at that time was that young people did not go to the doctor until the disease had already spread. My stepmother got me to the doctor in time, and for that I will always be grateful.