During the hot month of July 2021, we heard words that a doctor should never have to utter. These painful words came from my dad’s oncologist, who informed us that there was no available treatment that could help my dad anymore, and that he had between 3 and 6 months to live.
Time Stood Still
My heart sank so low that it felt out of place. Electrical activity in my brain came to a sudden halt, and my brain cells remained unresponsive. Only the doctor’s words kept ringing in my ears.
At that moment, time stood still for me. There was no movement around me; it was as if even the earth had stopped revolving around the sun. “What? My dad is going to die?”
Three years into his cancer diagnosis, my dad was losing his battle against what had now become an aggressive colorectal cancer that metastasized to his peritoneum cavity, causing blockage in his intestines.
My dad was diagnosed with metastatic (stage IV) colorectal cancer after having suffered several months of anal pain. Going to the bathroom was uncomfortable and difficult, and I remember my mother being concerned at how much time he had spent in the bathroom every time.
At the time of his diagnosis, his oncologist suggested that he must have had that cancer for about a year, which allowed the tumor to grow quietly, until it reached the lymph nodes.
The tumor kept pressing on his colon, making it difficult for fecal matter to pass through the rectum. But it was not until my dad saw blood in his feces that he finally decided to get it checked, which led to the diagnosis of colorectal cancer.
Later, the cancer cells spread from the original tumor to other body organs, becoming metastatic. Some of the cells settled in his liver and in his lungs, but he had no symptoms related to these other organs. Then, 3 years later, the cancer cells had invaded his peritoneum, the membrane that insulates and keeps the abdominal organs together. The alignment of these organs, and the space between them, fit perfectly well within the abdominal cavity, and any deviation from that can have severe repercussions on digestive health.
In my dad’s case, the metastases on the peritoneum led to blocked peristalsis (which is involuntary movements that move food through the digestive tract) in his intestines. This stopped his natural digestion and his body could no longer absorb any food. Whatever he swallowed was stuck in his stomach and after a while was regurgitated.
We knew that his cancer was stage IV, metastatic cancer at the time of his diagnosis. The oncologist explained that the original tumor was in the area where the sigmoid colon turns into the rectum. It was low enough, that the doctor could feel the tumor with her fingers. In addition, there were metastases in his liver and lungs.
Having a stage IV, metastatic colorectal cancer diagnosis placed my father’s life expectancy at a 5-year maximum.
My Dad Is Not a Statistic
I am not one to believe in statistics, and I vehemently rejected any attempt at turning my dad into a statistic. “My dad is not a statistic” was a phrase I relentlessly drilled into my head every time I came across statistics related to the survival rate of people diagnosed with my dad’s type and stage of colorectal cancer.
I kept looking for information that would trounce those statistics and make them inapplicable to my dad’s condition. For example, the overall health of the patient was either not considered or poor health was cited in cases linked to low survival rates.
By contrast, my dad was very healthy, and he had a strong heart, so I thought that this had set him apart from those statistics. I thought that because he was so healthy “otherwise,” he could beat this cancer, even though it was already metastatic.
Keeping that positive and hopeful attitude worked for 3 years. Or perhaps it was denial, because it worked until the oncologist told us that there was nothing else they could do to save my dad. The penetration of cancer cells into the peritoneum was considered the terminal phase of colorectal cancer, and his prognosis was bleak.
At that time, he had undergone 2 surgeries in his abdomen that resulted in the permanent closure of his rectum and the use of an ostomy bag. The first surgery was necessary to remove the tumor that was painfully pressing against his colon, and the second one was to circumvent a blockage in his intestines that was caused by metastases that had settled in his peritoneum.
When a new blockage appeared, the surgeon was reluctant to operate on him again, because my dad had already had 2 stomas on his abdomen, which are openings where the ostomy bags can be inserted. Creating another opening was no longer an option.
In the end, my dad was sent to a palliative care facility where he was connected to a stomach pump for the remainder of his life. At that point, the doctors gave him 3 to 6 months more to live, but he only remained with us for 3 weeks.
He struggled with pain that only intensified because of the growing tumor, but he also had to fight his insatiable hunger. It was heart wrenching to see my dad suffer so much, and although he was loaded with morphine for the pain, he was not able to reach any state of relaxation at the end.
Still, one thing during this ordeal is etched in my memory forever—his beautiful smile. He had kept his sense of humor all along, and when he realized he had said something nonsensical, he laughed at himself, and that gave us a happy memory to keep with us forever.
I love you dad, and I miss you so much.
About the Author
Yasmina Rebani-Lee is co-founder of www.mindriselife.org, an organization dedicated to the dissemination of research-based findings on anxiety, promoting mental health self-help practices.