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Nirmal Shah

Patients & Survivors Stage III Colon Cancer
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Nirmal's story

I was 41 when I was diagnosed. It was a Friday morning. The aches were mild but nagged through the day. It had been like this for a couple of weeks, and I had scheduled a colonoscopy with a gastroenterologist when basic medicines with my GP failed to cure it.

I lay on the bed, the colonoscopy tube running into my guts. As it made its way through the large intestine, I could see my insides on the screen. The doctor’s reaction in the next moment told me more than he intended to say – “no, no, no” he sighed, as I caught sight of a large obstruction.

When it was all over, I asked the doctor, what might it be. He said it could be just a benign growth, or tuberculosis, or cancer. He would like to wait until the biopsy results came – which would take 48 hours. He also suggested that I quickly undergo a battery of tests, the same day while we waited for the biopsy.

So far, no one knew about this except the doctor and I. My first task was to break the news to my wife. When I got home, all I told her then was that the doctor feels I need some more tests. She could tell it was more than that. I didn’t want to speculate and even the doctor was not committing to what it was. But I had seen enough on the screen to suspect the worst.

The rest of the day was spent in tests and scans. The results came in – enough to say that there was a pretty large tumor in my colon. Still – nothing on what it was.

48 agonizing hours passed. The wait was worse the than the fear of what I might be suffering from. It was a Sunday – so no results yet. However, we spent this time in planning and organizing – we knew that either way, this would be a long haul. I pulled up all my health insurance documents, other financials, bills – figuring out what financial reserves I could draw on and how quickly. You save for a rainy day – and it was about to pour!

Monday morning came and went. Monday evening came and went. Nothing! And then I got a call from the doctor asking me if I had seen his email. I hadn’t – and he asked me to meet him right away. He would wait, even though it was late.

As I rode the elevator – I quickly checked my email. All I remember is the word “adenocarcinoma.” The doctor patiently explained to me that I had cancer. His role would end here – and I would have to see an oncologist to know what next. All he said was that I should act quickly. He promised to connect me with a good consultant he knew and with words of support let me off.

And that is how I got diagnosed. It turned out to be a stage IIIa colon cancer.

Treatment included chemotherapy and surgery.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms included stomach cramps/bloating/fullness, unable to have a bowel movement (bowel obstruction) or constipation.

Side effects

Side effects included fatigue and neuropathy.

Nirmal's advice

The screening might seem daunting, but even something as troublesome as a colonoscopy takes only half a day. It only seems uncomfortable before you get screened. Once you start the process, you will just get through it. Imagine, a half-day's discomfort, could save a life. It saved mine.

I used to "Google" a lot when I got my diagnosis. On advice of my doctors, I stopped. Then I stopped reading forwarded advice I received from non-experts. My best resource was my team of doctors and the fact that I stopped reading everything a Google search came up with.

Seven years a survivor, I now live with cautious optimism. Every day spent alive deserves celebration. But, my future plans are shorter term. When you are in your early 40s, you are supposed to be at your peak, making ambitious plans. Now, my plans have long-term hopes but short-term goals.

Living in remission has taught me to think of the “future” with a different time frame than what I used to. Until a few years ago, I lived like I would never die, with no plans to consolidate for the future. Now, mortality feels more real, however far it may be.

I have, however, stopped seeing death as something to be fearful of. I believe the fear lies in the unknown: What would happen to loved ones who are left behind. The reality is that, everyone is a survivor. The loved ones will also survive. You do what you can to create a better future for yourself and your loved ones. In my case, I do it using short-term goals. I think a year ahead. Maybe, three. For the long term, there is just a lot of love, good memories, and a life insurance policy.

I have also learned that I now have newer boundaries – physical and emotional. Every now and then, I try to push them. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I hit a stubborn, thick concrete wall. I have learned not to get frustrated with those and instead, look for the ones that I could push. Sometimes, I have small victories in big battles, and sometimes big victories in the smaller ones.

The human will has the power to overcome the worst. Willpower, belief, and trust in your medical advisors, and constantly pushing your boundaries, can help overcome even a deadly disease like cancer.

The badge of a cancer survivor is not a stigma – it is a battle scar, a medal of honor, to be worn with pride, joy and a bit of verve!

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