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I had symptoms for a few years starting when I was around 30. I had recently returned from Afghanistan and chalked it up to some random parasitic infection; maybe I drank the water inadvertently or ate something that wasn’t quite up to snuff. I remember my wife (then fiancée) begging me to go see a doctor. "This isn’t normal," I remember her saying. And with my machismo attitude I thought, "No, it's probably just a bad case of food poisoning. I'll be OK."
After a few years of these symptoms, I realized I was not OK. I went to a gastroenterologist (GI) when I was 32 and remember being asked to provide a stool sample, but the nurses didn't have the kits available. Again, my machismo attitude got the best of me and I opted out of using a Ziploc bag. The next year, I had some chest pain and went to see my cardiologist. She told me to go see my GI again, and through a process of trying to rule out pancreatic cancer after a low vitamin D level, I requested the colonscopy with the endoscopy that the doctor advised. That’s when they found the tumor.
I had just turned 34, and I still remember reading the words "likely malignant" describing the tumor. I fought back the tears and the thousand other emotions that raced through me as the doctor offered me his best grimace and told me we would know soon. A few days later, I was diagnosed with mildly differentiated rectal adenocarcinoma.
I immediately thought about my wife, my kids and my life. I thought about what they would do without me. What would my parents feel like outliving their son? What about my siblings? Who would watch over them? It was the worst feeling in the world, this feeling of helplessness that seemed to just take over.
"I tell [my friends and colleagues] to go get checked because it's better to catch it earlier than later and this disease knows no age. I hope they listen."
I had to work through my treatment, and it wasn't always easy. I was traveling to a project in New York while my wife and kids were in Maryland. I asked for a transfer to the local office, which I was granted, and kept my schedule as best I could around all my appointments. Short Term Disability was not an option, as it would have yielded a huge pay cut. I even went to work a few days after I left the hospital following all my surgeries, which resulted in prolonged healing of wounds.
At times, I still don't believe I had cancer. It all seems like a horrible nightmare that I have to relive every time I go in for my follow up tests.
But my wife and kids kept me focused, and still do. My wife was with me every step of the way; she was a rock. She stood with me and never flinched. I knew I had to win every battle and the war, and I had no time to feel sorry for myself. Between my family and my parents being around when we needed them the most, it was a lot easier to stay focused on the challenge and not on the day-to-day distractions.
I've learned so much through this experience. My diet was horrible; my sedentary job was not good for me; I wasn't active enough. I needed to make a lot of changes. I also learned how tough I really was. I knew I was tough, but it was never tested like this before. I look back at the five months of wearing ileostomy hardware and realize nothing will ever be as challenging to my psyche as that was. Also, life is too short. Cherish the people you love and do everything you can to enjoy every moment of your life.
I have not passed a friend or colleague without talking to them about the importance of screening. I tell them all to go get checked because it's better to catch it earlier than later and this disease knows no age. I hope they listen. And in case they weren't listening when I said it the first time, I say it again.
Screening should be a covered test, and this pipe dream that it only happens after 50 needs to go away. I was shocked at how fortunate I was that I was only at stage II, when so many in my age group are being diagnosed at stage III or have passed away.
To those recently diagnosed: We only face challenges we can overcome. It's a long, hard and very taxing experience, but you have to keep the right attitude and fight back.
Amr Radwan, 35
One year NED (no evidence of disease)
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Published March 3, 2014