Son’s colonoscopy results bring relief, guilt

Photos and captions by Scott Saalman
I took this photo June 23 as mom and dad discussed the pros and cons of trying another type of chemotherapy pill, following an appointment with her doctor earlier that day. Worried about the possible negative affects to her quality of life and based on a horrible experience with a different type of chemo pills earlier this spring, mom is leaning toward not going through with the treatment and simply enjoying how she currently feels. She’s going to put off a decision for two weeks.

Guest Columnist

I recently had a second colonoscopy. A couple of polyps were removed. A week later, the nurse called, declaring them “benign,” sending me into a tailspin of despair. I thought to myself, “Benign! Why me, God?! Why me?!” Then I remembered that benign, despite how ghastly the word sounded, was a good thing. It’s actually what you want to hear after a colonoscopy; it’s the opposite of cancerous.

I was instantly relieved, but the relief was short lived. It was soon overshadowed by overwhelming guilt. Four years ago, nearly one year after my first colonoscopy at age 50, Mom, in her early 70s, was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Despite knowing that a colorectal screening could prevent cancer or at least lead to an early diagnosis, and despite her own mother having once been diagnosed with the same disease, Mom declined screening offers.

Recently, a Catholic priest visited my parents’ house. Full disclosure: Mom has not attended Mass in decades; she has long preferred to participate in daily private discussions with God, sans human congregation. The priest anointed her with oil — to free her soul, I guess — and afterwards he was rewarded with free ice cream (her idea of penance). Mom laughed how word had seemed to spread “like wildfire” around town about his visit, resulting in several phone calls and visits from friends, as if everyone envisioned the priest tending to her spiritual needs at her deathbed. Actually, her premature “last rites” were administered outdoors while she sat on a lawn chair in full view of her squirrel and bird friends — that’s more Mom’s style. I suspect any value placed on the blessing had less to do with her improved inroad to heaven than possibly improving her luck at the casino. In summary: reports of Mom’s death were greatly exaggerated that day.

When mom mentioned to dad that she wished she had a pool to cool her feet earlier this month, dad did the best he could to come up with a solution.

Mom remains in a battle to live. Traditional chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are not valid options anymore. Two months ago, a last-ditch attempt to prolong her life was delivered in the form of chemo pills. While they improved her carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) numbers, their side-effects lessened her quality of life far more greatly than the actual disease was doing. She stopped eating, slept constantly, and fell at times. IVs were used to fight dehydration, supply sustenance, and administer morphine. She expressed a wish for her deceased mother to be around to take care of her. She had nearly every COVID-19 symptom possible yet tested negative twice. “I thought I was going to die,” she recalled. Eventually, the doctor told her, “The pills are killing you,” and recommended ceasing treatment.

Mom had pondered quitting the pills anyway. Whatever time she had left, she wanted to experience the best quality of life possible for someone in her condition. When she agreed to end the treatment, she was told more than once, “You do know we’ve done everything we can for you?”

Now off the chemo pills, her quality of life is much better. No more fevers. No more chills (when she was taking the pills, dad had tirelessly heated four blankets at a time in the dryer and covered her with them). She’s walking OK alone. Somehow, she garnered enough strength to bake her only granddaughter a cake for her 21st birthday. We have good conversations. “I’m walking. I’m talking. I’m laughing,” she said. “I’m happy.” She said she now gives herself three months to live, then added, “No, make that six.”

Three years ago, learning about Mom’s cancer, my doctor advised me to get a colonoscopy every five years instead of every 10. “Thanks a lot, mom,” I joked after telling her the news — we have long bonded via dark humor — but Mom was unusually silent. Last month, I was reluctant to tell her about the good results from my latest colonoscopy. My bill of health was deemed clean while hers continued being grim. “See, you can’t say you got it from me,” she said when I actually told her about my benign polyps. She smiled, as if something heavy had been lifted.

Currently, her CEA level is alarmingly high. She still sleeps a lot, often to the Weather Channel. I worry about the hurricanes in her dreams. I peek in her room to make sure she’s OK, just like I’m sure she did when I was caged in a baby crib in 1964. I worry the popping of my ankle joints will wake her. I inherited her noisy ankle pops. Both of us would be lousy cat burglars. If my ankles make her eyes open, I selfishly take secret joy in her awakened state.

Mom loves the simplicity of root beer floats. My wife Brynne lovingly deadheads her mother-in-law’s outdoor plants. Dad washes laundry (his newest skill), and I like watching her bedsheets on the clothesline dancing in the spring breeze like drunken ghosts, causing me to recall her summer shadow on the fresh-smelling fabrics pinned by her to the taut line during my 1970s childhood. The other day, Mom and I sat outside beneath a patio umbrella during a rain shower. She said it was one the greatest days of her life to be able to sit there with me in the rain. I was wet but didn’t complain. Here in the “you do know we’ve done everything we can for you?” phase of Mom’s stage four colon cancer, we do everything we can for her.

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