Movember/No-Shave-November is upon us. It’s a great time to sport the monster “mo” to support a cause. I’m sure there’s no shortage of charities happy to take money, but I’m using my magnificent handlebar creation for awareness. I’m a colon cancer survivor. What’s more, I’m the annoying diet/exercise guy who wouldn’t eat the office birthday cake and takes lunch at the gym. In a 24 year police and military career, I’ve been subject to physical fitness tests and medical exams all my adult life. My bride and I are solvent, young empty nesters who live mostly on home-cooked organic food. I don’t have a family history of colon cancer. I’m not a cigarette smoker or heavy drinker. Statistically, I shouldn’t have cancer, but at 42 years old, I got the bad news.
I’m very often asked how I discovered the disease, and that’s an important part of my story. I was passing blood. In the vast majority of cases, that’s not a big deal. It’s almost always attributed to hemorrhoids, which is the diagnosis given in my first doctor’s visit, without an exam. I was given an expensive foam medication and sent home. I returned a week or two later, insisting that I did not have any other symptoms supporting hemorrhoids and was still bleeding. I was finally checked for ‘roids the “old fashioned” way and nothing was found. I was referred to another doctor who insisted that I was “fine” before performing tests that discovered a tumor. In further testing an unrelated tumor was found in my thyroid.
Otherwise, I felt fine. I had recently made personal record length mountain climb and competed in the U.S. Fencing nationals. I didn’t feel sick, but a year of treatment took care of that. After radiation, chemotherapy and five surgical procedures, I’m currently cancer-free. I’m not back to my original athletic levels, and that may never happen. That’s one of the tick marks in the “sucks” category, but I’m alive and otherwise happy. Whether or not I’ll stay that way for long is a complete crapshoot, but my cancer was discovered rather late (stage IIIc) which means that I most likely won’t have to deal with having gray hair.
A number of reasons led me to be open about my experience, but the most outstanding was learning how many people lived with symptoms of the disease and never sought treatment. Even more shocking is the number of people who sought treatment and were sent home with a non-life threatening diagnosis. I was completely amazed by how many people asked detailed questions about the color, frequency and other characteristics about the bleeding because they were experiencing the same issues but wouldn’t see a doctor. In a Reddit thread about assumptive behavior in medicine, I shared my story. Here’s a response from someone appearing to be in medicine:
"A digital rectal exam can't diagnose colon cancer. The vast majority of people who come in with bright red blood per rectum have hemorrhoids, it's not worthwhile to have them all undergo colonoscopies, plus if we did that, it would keep a lot of people from ever seeing the doctor."
This person is right, but I have two issues with this. First, my personal health concerns do not involve “the vast majority of people." I’m all about the greater good at times, but this isn’t one of them. Second, a digital rectal exam, in my case, excluded most hemorrhoid conditions and led to a colonoscopy. Had I waited longer than a couple of weeks to press further, my life would have been shortened by many years, especially many good years.
Colon cancer isn’t just a man’s disease, but male survivors just aren’t as vocal as our fairer counterparts. In honor of the No-Shave November theme, here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way for the midlife guys to squeeze a bit more juice out of life. Gentlemen, I give you Matt’s MOvember Message for Men in a social-media listed format:
1. Take charge of your healthcare. You’re driving the boat. Ask questions and make sure you understand everything. We’d all rather face a bear than deal with tough health issues. We have to be emotionally courageous as well as physically.
2. Take advantage of free screenings. Blood drives, employee clinics and health fairs offer free screenings that may point out problems before they grow beyond control.
3. Seek the best care. We will drive hours for a good hunting lease, a new car or a concert. Why not two hours for a specialist?
4. Don’t be cheap. Yes, good healthcare is expensive and our system isn’t perfect. Honest discussion with your provider will very often bring down the cost for a cash patient. Much of the overhead in medical care is in the cost of dealing with insurance. It never hurts to ask.
5. Diet and exercise aren’t just buzzwords. Yes, even athletic people with the perfect diet get cancer, but that’s not an excuse to live on potato chips and beer alone. Facing the disease with a strong body significantly improves your survival because you can tolerate aggressive treatment and recover faster and stronger than most. You don’t have to run marathons or Crossfit yourself to the orthopedic specialist. Try walking for an hour.
6. Don’t be afraid. I have actually heard grown-ass men say that they won’t get any exam that involves butt stuff. It’s time to grow up and get a camera poked up your arse. Trust me, it’s better than the ass traffic involved in beating cancer. If you get cancer, you’ll want to beat it.
7. Don’t smoke. Cigarettes will kill you.
8. Know your history. Health problems are often hereditary, so start your prevention early.
9. Easy on the booze. Here’s another area where moderation makes the man. If you have a problem, fix it.
10. Your mind matters. It’s time for us to realize that John Wayne was an actor, and just being tough all the time doesn’t fix everything. It’s true that there’s a lot of hype and over-diagnosis in mental health issues, but depression, anxiety and similar issues are very common and will take a toll on physical health if not faced. Grow a pair and face the demons. Turn on the bullshit filter and turn off frustrating news feeds. Whether it’s in a church, circle of friends or the middle of a lake, get your thoughts straight enough to sleep at night.
11. Don’t discount “alternative” therapies. Yoga, massage and chiropractic treatment will repair or prevent many problems before you take it to a specialist. It’s not witchcraft. Don’t be the guy in assless motorcycle chaps calling others “gay” for going to a yoga class. Yoga guy is surrounded by women in tights. Assless chaps guy is hanging out with other assless chaps guys. Let that image sink in.
12. Beware the snake oil. I have had people look me straight in the eye and tell me that consuming some obscure fruit or baking soda will cure cancer. Remember the red wine/resveratrol thing, and how great it is for your heart? The damage caused by alcohol outweighs the benefit. The bullshit tide rides high in health issues.
13. Make time. Take time for exercise and mental decompression. You’re not abusing your kids by taking some “me” time and clearing the head. You might accidentally teach your kids that everyone deserves a little space.
14. Be safe. Break out the safety glasses that came with your finish nailer. They’re probably still in the wrapper. Be safe in your work and play. Injuries in the 40+ class will take you out of the game longer.
15. Encourage your buddies. Share success and lean on others to help with health goals.
Take care of the machine, gents!