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Michael J. Contos

Patients & Survivors Stage II Colon Cancer Pennsylvania
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Story: "Cancer strikes, scaring the crap out of me! Cancer. As a kid, I had linked it directly to a death sentence. All I remember when hearing the word spoken by an adult was the amount of time a doctor would give a person to live upon discovering the sickness. I’d get scared. I’d try to avoid looking at the man or woman, wanting to run away from them, afraid that their sickness would rub off on me somehow. 'The person is going to die,' I thought. 'When you got cancer, you died,' I told myself. 'I don’t want to die, I don’t want cancer, and I don’t want to be around someone who talks about cancer, let alone contracts it.' That is until a doctor told me I had cancer.

"He said it with no emotion whatsoever in his voice. The cancer had grown in my colon and had caused me the pain and suffering I had lived with for six months. It was a relief, in a way. I thought the pain was caused by something I got exposed to while in a sweat lodge. I felt a little sick shortly after taking part in my third sweat lodge experience. Could the sweat in the lodge have caused such discomfort? Someone noticed a spider or two in the lodge before we added hot coals to the pit and began the sweat. 'Perhaps I got some sort of poison from one of the spiders,' I pondered. 'Or maybe it was something in the food.' Ten of us had prepared for a potluck dinner shared after the sweat.

"'It’s irritable bowel syndrome (IBS),' I had eventually determined I had gotten. My stomach began to swell, and I developed all the symptoms of the disease, including cramping and constipation, not to mention diarrhea and occasionally throwing up in the most inconvenient places like a Target store in Chestnut Hill, a high-class neighborhood in Philadelphia. I restricted my diet, took herbal supplements, and read anything I could get my hands on from the Internet. I saw two different doctors and neither one could pinpoint the cause of my sickness, nor confirm that it indeed was IBS. Even my CAT scan showed nothing out of the ordinary.

"Next came an ultrasound test with similar results. Both showed that I had something wrong with my kidneys, but I knew that going in, and I was assured it could not have caused the problem on the right side of the stomach. Finally, hospital staff members at the Veterans Administration of Philadelphia performed a colonoscopy test. I had not had one for over nine years and was not due until this past August.

"'You've got a large growth here,' the doctor at the VA hospital told me when the initial results from the procedure were available. He told me that it looked like cancer. Within hours, a biopsy report confirmed that the growth was indeed cancerous. And in less than 10 days, the hospital admitted me for surgery, and I went under the knife on May 23, 2014. I wouldn’t know if the surgeon got everything out for another 10 days. And I can tell you that I had not felt such dread for my life since being shelled in combat while serving in Vietnam.

"'At least, no one is shooting at me this time.' The train ride from home to the hospital was one of the longest trips of my life. I just knew I was going to die. I figured that the surgeon could not remove all cancer during my operation 10 days earlier, and it finally struck me: 'I am a cancer victim!'

"The doctor never called me with the results from the operation in the Veterans Hospital of Philadelphia. I spent five days and four nights there, mostly recuperating from the surgery. When I left, I had hoped to hear from the physician, but she didn’t call. I believed she was afraid to give me the bad news over the phone.

"I never once opened the book I took with me to read on SEPTA’s R-6 rail line. Nor did I open it when I sat on the bus that took me and several other veterans to the hospital in West Philadelphia. Who cared about reading when you only have so much time left? Who cared about anything in life when you’re facing death? Nor did I check any of my emails on the cell phone I carried. How many people do you know that can go a full hour, let alone an entire day, without giving in to the social media addiction? I know some who turn on their phones before getting out of bed in the morning. They just can’t live without seeing the latest text message or input from a Facebook friend or email contact.

"But, there I was with no contact with the outside world as I made my way to the oncology ward. I sat on an examination bed and awaited the verdict from the doctor. I meditated as much as I could, hoping to calm the jitters I had all morning. It helps to block out all thoughts. It helps not to think because I usually tend to think the worst in a situation like this.

"'That’s it, Michael J. You got your breathing under control. You have been able to let all thoughts drift by without grasping onto them. You’re a blank slate right now, you’re living in the present moment, and you’re safe and sound in a hospital office. No one is shooting at you, trying to kill you...'

"You know, the greatest benefit of having served in combat is that during the worst times of my adult life, I have always been able to compare it to the fire fights I faced while in Vietnam. Nothing compares to it. No divorce, no death in the family, and no serious illness. Did I just mention illness? Yes, even an illness, such as a life-threatening one as cancer. At least I’m not suffering pain at this moment. I’m not hurting. I’m not sniveling like a baby who hasn’t got his way for good health and long life. I am simply alive. And I can 'be' alive for as long as I am able to keep my mind away from any and all negative aspects of death.

"Uh oh. Someone just opened the door. It’s Dr. Carter Paulson. She’s smiling. She touches my arm, and I am now set for her pronouncement.

“'You’re cancer-free,' she says. 'We got it all.' I immediately knelt on the floor of the hospital corridor, gently grabbed the good doctor’s hand, and kissed it, telling her how grateful I was to hear those words of salvation!

"What 'no cancer' means: no negative thoughts of an impending death. Now, what do I do with this second chance I got from this bout with cancer? What would you do?"

Advice: "Hang in there. Share your experience with others who are probably going through the same anguish and stress that all of us have had to deal with. Get your screening done and get it over with!"

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