It was during the hot month of July that we heard words that a doctor should never have to utter. These painful words came from my dad’s oncologist who announced to us that there was no more treatment available to my dad and that he had between 3 to 6 months left to live.
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.
On that day and at that moment, time stood still. 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 a now aggressive metastatic colorectal cancer that had infiltrated his peritoneum cavity and caused a blockage in his intestines.
My dad was diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer after having suffered quite a few months with pain in his behind. Going to the bathroom was uncomfortable and difficult, and I remember my mother being concerned at how much time he spent in the toilets every time.
His oncologist even suggested that he must have had that cancer for about a year, allowing the tumor to grow quietly until it finally reached the lymph nodes. From there, cancer cells broke free from the original tumor to spread to other body organs.
Some of them settled in his liver and others in his lungs. These produced no symptoms, but the tumor kept pressing onto his colon making it more difficult for fecal matter to pass through the rectum. But, it was not until my dad saw blood in his feces that he ultimately decided to get it checked.
A few years later, cancer cells had invaded the peritoneum, which is 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 had blocked peristalsis in the intestines, which is the involuntary movement that allows food to travel down the digestive tract. As a result, digestion stopped and the food could no longer be absorbed. Whatever he swallowed was stuck in his stomach and after a while was regurgitated.
We knew that his cancer was at an advanced stage at the time of diagnosis. We were told by the oncologist that he had a tumor 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, they had found metastases in his liver and lungs. All those added up to a stage IV grading, which placed my father’s life expectancy at a 5 year cap.
I am not one to believe in statistics, and I vehemently rejected any attempt at turning my dad into one. “My dad is not a statistic!” was a phrase I relentlessly drilled into my head every time I came across a statistic related to survival rate of individuals with my dad’s type and stage of 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 individual was either not emphasized or poor health was mentioned in cases of low survival rates. By contrast, my dad was very healthy and he had a strong heart, so I thought that it set him apart from those statistics. I thought that because he was so healthy otherwise, he could beat this cancer despite the stage that it was in.
Keeping that positive and hopeful attitude worked for three years. Or perhaps it was denial, because it worked until the oncologist said to 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 his colorectal cancer, and his prognosis was bleak.
At that time, he had undergone two 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 yet again, because my dad had already had two stomas on his abdomen, which are literally openings where the Ostomy bags can be inserted. So creating another opening was simply not an option.
In the end, my dad was sent to a palliative care facility where he was hooked to a stomach pump 24/7 for the remainder of his life. The doctors gave him 3 to 6 months, but he only stayed with us for 3 weeks. He struggled with pain that only intensified due to the growing tumor, but he also had to fight 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 never able to reach a state of relaxation.
Still there was one moment during this ordeal that is etched in my memory forever, and that is his beautiful smile. He had kept his sense of humor all along, so 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.