Surviving The Sorrow: Losing your spouse to colon cancer

March 24, 2016 | Cancer Screening, Health

I stepped out of the shower and there he was, like it was any other regular day. Staring at me with those enormous sapphire blue eyes I had fallen in love with 10 plus years ago. Russell was dressed in his favorite summer attire, shiny blue athletic shorts and a red cotton tank top. My gaze never left his as I toweled off and put on my Saturday lounge clothes. Several minutes passed before I finally worked up the courage to speak.

“Is it really you?” I said in a voice barely above a whisper. Russell said very matter of fact “Yes.”

I immediately enveloped him in a very intense hug and for several moments we stood there embracing like any married couple in love would. Then it occurred to me that this indeed, was not like any other embracing couple.

I pulled away and touched his forearms, trying to convince my stunned mind that he was really there in flesh and blood. His intense stare never left my face as I looked up and down and all over incredulously. My beloved husband was really there, in perfect condition!

Russell reached for my hand and led me down a short hallway of the house that I lived in as a child, but was ours as adults. We entered the master bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed just looking at each other for what seemed like a very long time.

I tentatively broke the silence, “How is this possible?!” In true Russell fashion, he simply shrugged and gave a little smile.

We continued to sit in silence and look at each other. Russell was larger than life and very real. I didn’t understand how this was all possible but began to instinctively feel that these moments with Russell would end soon.

Our little world in that bedroom began to move like scenes in a slow movie. Russell’s smile began to fade and his face scrunched up in a familiar look of pain. We flashed to the next scene in the movie. He abruptly let go of my hand, blinked slowly, and lay down on the bed with his feet still on the ground. The next scene found him laying face down on the bed, slowly pulling himself to the floor with his hands. Then he was suddenly on his feet, I was behind him and to the left, and we were facing a closet full of our clothes. Russell took one step toward the closet, paused and rotated his upper body until I could see his face. He flashed the briefest of smiles and turned back to the closet that was full of nothing but camouflaged hunting clothes, now matching what Russell was wearing.

In that instant, I knew he was leaving. Russell started slowly moving toward the closet, not stopping or looking back. He was almost robotic as he walked into the closet full of camo hunting gear.

I cried out “Russell, no!” and reached for his left hand as it swung at his side behind him in a normal walking stride. I grabbed for his hand, wrist, fingers, something! But all I retrieved into my grasp was the sleeve of a hanging hunting shirt. He was gone…

I awoke with a start and slowly, reality trickled into the sun filled morning. I had lost Russell to stage 4 colon cancer 2 weeks ago. He was 38 years old at the time of his death. He was 36 and 5 months when he was diagnosed. I was a widow at 38. Cancer took the only man I had ever loved and given my heart to 13 days shy of our 10 year anniversary.

I first met Russell in the 3rd grade in Colstrip, MT. His dad worked at the power plant and mine at the coal mine. I remember holding Russell’s hand in class and telling the other kids on the playground that he was my boyfriend. The next year his family moved to Forsyth and I didn’t see him again until we were in high school. He started attending my church and youth group in Forsyth. He and my brother became fast friends and remained best friends until the day Russell died.

Russell became a full part of our family. Spending as much time as possible at our house in the summers and on weekends during the school year. He went on our family vacations with us, and was included in birthdays, Easter, and Christmas. He became my second brother and the third child my parents never got to have.

The end of high school came and he enlisted in the army and I moved to Bozeman for college. Russell was in the middle of basic training when he had sudden, violent bowel problems. This problem continued and got much worse. He was eventually diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis and was medically discharged from the army. He came home really sick and battled UC for 8 years until it went into a sort of remission. During this time, I saw him seldom, but always remained friends. Early in 2003, I was in Bozeman going to school, working, and unaware that he had been feeling something much stronger than friendship. One day my brother laid it all out and told me that Russell wanted to court me. I didn’t believe him. It took some convincing on my brothers part and finally, a phone call from Russell, officially asking me if I wanted to be more than friends. We were engaged 3 months later, and married on August 14, 2004.

As part of our premarital counseling, we were instructed to sit down with one another and have a serious, truthful conversation about things we may have been keeping from one another. This was when I first learned of his 10 fold increased risk of getting colon cancer because of the Ulcerative Colitis. He told me his Gastroenterologist had told him they would have to do yearly colonoscopies and remove polyps to decrease the risk. I asked him to promise me then and there, that he would get regular colonoscopies and, of course, he did.

For most of our marriage, Russell’s UC was quiet. He was able to work and live like a regular human without running to the bathroom every 5 minutes. The intense abdominal pain that had plagued him for years was largely absent and he was able to maintain a healthy body weight. So to say that colon cancer was forefront on our minds would be a lie. We were busy building a life together, blissfully happy and going through fertility treatments to try and start a family. However, I started noticing little signs that all was not ok in Russell’s body.

Russell was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer on May 10, 2012. I saw signs and symptoms in him 6-8 months prior to his diagnosis, but there were no early warning signs. The nausea, vomiting, constipation, fatigue, paleness, and distended abdomen that I saw in my husband are all signs of the advanced stages of cancer. A colonoscopy revealed a tumor the size of a small melon, seven inches in diameter. A CT scan the next day revealed 1 large and 2 smaller tumors in his liver and several lymph nodes in his abdomen affected. His bowel was 90% blocked by the tumor and had almost invaded his bladder. Usually, when colon cancer is found treatment is started first to shrink the size of the tumor and then surgery is performed. Russell’s case was so advanced, they had no choice but to remove his colon, let him recover from surgery, and then start treatment. Initially, his body responded very well to treatment and all the tumors shrank by 50% or more, but the most effective chemotherapy became ineffective and the tumors began to grow. The second course of treatment played out the same way. The last resort, which was a chemotherapy pill, made him horribly ill and also proved ineffective. Cancer took Russell’s life on July 30, 2014.

From the time of diagnosis until his death there were a host of problems, setbacks, and complications. His entire colon was removed and an Ileostomy bag (similar to a colostomy bag) was fitted to him. The site where solid waste left his body (stoma) bled frequently. On several occasions it bled severely and filled his Ileostomy bag with blood. Seven times in the span of a month I had to rush him to the ER to get the bleeding to stop. One year into his treatment, lymph nodes with cancer began to swell and pinch off his ureters, so every couple months he would have to go under anesthesia to replace stints in his ureters to keep urine from backing up into his kidneys. A couple times the stents would become plugged before they could get him in to replace them and I had to rush him to the ER because of the incredible pain of urine backing up into his kidneys. He had 8 hours plus of chemotherapy infusion every Wednesday, then was attached to a take home pump with another 48 hrs of chemotherapy. On one instance he had an allergic reaction to the chemotherapy. All treatment was stopped, and one particular chemotherapy was removed from the cocktail they gave him. In the spring of 2014, infusions were stopped. The cancer had started growing out of control. He was sent home with the last resort, a chemotherapy pill. He took 4 per day. They caused high fevers, his liver enzymes to spike, nausea and vomiting, and crippling fatigue. He was admitted to the hospital on July 3rd for renal failure. The stints in his ureters were blocked again. But, this time his kidneys were in complete failure and an emergency procedure to drain both kidneys was performed. He was in the hospital for 1 week before being discharged into hospice care. He was at home, in hospice care for 3 weeks. In that time he lost the ability to walk or even stand on his own. The cancer affected his mind. He had hallucinations and lost the ability to communicate. The odor of decomposing flesh was constant in the room. The cancer ate him alive.

It is not my intention to garner sympathy or shock people with the gory details of my story. It is my intention to convey how cancer can destroy everything. All my hopes and dreams of growing old with this man that I loved died with him.

Russell did not keep his promise to me. He went our entire marriage without getting a colonoscopy. That would have saved his life. He should be here and after his diagnosis he lived with unbearable regret.

The only way I know how to make sense of a loss that will never be ok, is to share my story in as many ways as I can. If it convinces one person to get a colonoscopy, then I have accomplished what I hoped I would, through my story. All adults over the age of 50 need to have a conversation with their doctors about colon cancer and colonoscopies. And anyone who is at an increased risk for the disease need yearly colonoscopies. Colon cancer in its early stages is completely treatable. Survival rates for stage one are 90%, but at stage 4, less than 10% survive.

It was Russell’s hope that people would learn from him. He dreamed of founding a non-profit for families that are affected by colon cancer. I am slowly learning how to live life without Russell. I am learning how to dream new dreams and to hold out hope for happiness again.