Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cancer and Questions

My dad had colon cancer. He died when I was fourteen. 

When I was fifteen, I got screened for "genetic compatibility" with my dad. All of his children were encouraged to have a colonoscopy-- an outpatient screening of the colon-- and some blood work. I had eight polyps, little bump-like things that are usually harmless, but important to remove. Given that I had them at age 15 (which is a little unusual), my doctor assumed I had "juvenile polyposis"-- also usually harmless, but important to keep an eye on. Over the years, I've had regular screenings; some with better results than others, but all in all, nothing that couldn't be managed. 

In January, I had my first screening since moving to Dallas, and the results were a little more alarming. Basically, the polyps I had this time were not the harmless kind, and they weren't "juvenile" either. Neither were they particularly tiny or easy to remove. In fact, I have to go back in June for another operation so she can get the rest out and see how fast they've grown since January. 

My doctor said that while I don't have cancer, I did have the kind of "bumps" that turn into cancer, although nobody can say how quickly that might happen. She suggested I strongly consider having my colon removed in the next few years. She also said the surgery could hinder my ability to get pregnant, so maybe I should have it removed in two surgeries. Or, she said, I could keep getting screened every year and take my chances, but that there's no guarantee they will catch it in time (apparently this stuff can develop in less than a year). 

As I attempt to process her advice and think about a course of action, I am weathering a surprising array of emotions, ranging from denial to panic. Do I take this seriously and treat it as a potential matter of life and death, or is that letting one woman's words define me unnecessarily? Do I fight this with nutrition as extremely as possible, or would it be silly to feel guilty for eating pizza at a party? Do I play it safe and opt for a major surgery that could alter my life, or is that giving in to fear? If I don't, and then later develop cancer like my dad, how will my husband or kids feel, knowing that I could have "prevented" it? And-- perhaps most surprisingly-- if I do take out my colon and eliminate this dynamic of my life, will I lose yet another connection to my father? 

I had no idea how emotionally complex it would be for me to be in these shoes, these shoes that are so like my father's. I feel that I am standing at the entrance of a familiar hospital wing and can still see the outline of his steps down the hall. Do I follow where he went? Do I run as fast as I can in the opposite direction? Is it delusional to think I have a choice anyway? If there's one thing I learned by watching him, it's that we are not really sovereign over our own lives. In other words, taking out my colon doesn't really eliminate the risk, anyway. I could remove one of my organs only for cancer to develop in another; or I could leave it in and be miraculously spared from the growth of cancer cells. 

This post doesn't really have any answers, only questions. Questions because life is not simple and the way is not always clear; because I am not in control but still given choices, choices that matter; questions because situations like this remind me that I am creature, not Creator; questions because the Christian life is not one of needing to have an answer for everything right away, but one where I am safe to ask, safe to cry, safe to wrestle. 

I don't expect to have an answer-- or even stabilized emotions-- by next week, and I'm realizing that's OK. I'm realizing that even when the "answers" come about what choice to make, I'll still be a creature, wrestling with the recurring pain of loss and the sobering reality of the unknown. And I'm realizing that's OK too.

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