The realities of getting older. Honestly, I felt pretty much the same as I did when I was in my 20’s and 30’s.
I worked out at least 4-5 per week. I had ridden my bicycle 3 times from San Francisco to Los Angeles over the last several years. I still worked crazy hours but always made time to spend as much time as I could with my amazing 2 boys. My oldest son was in 8th grade, going through the struggles of puberty, and my youngest, was just starting 5th grade.
We were all rabid LA Kings fans, and were eagerly looking forward to the first game of the season – scheduled for October 8. That day was not only my birthday, but also the day when the Kings would raise the Stanley Cup banner for the 2nd time in 3 years.
I had been a practicing physician in the same community, and at the same hospital for over 20 years. After 20 years, the hospital was like my second home and I pretty much knew everyone who worked there.
I had seen my primary care physician for my routine annual exam and he had recommended a screening colonoscopy.
I scheduled the procedure for Friday, October 3. I never imagined that I would have any problem. I was getting older, but still way too young, I thought, to worry about anything of significance. Both of my grandmothers had died of colon cancer, but not until they were in their 70’s. And my older brother had had several non-cancerous polyps removed a couple of years earlier.
I was asleep for the colonoscopy. When I woke up, the nurse told me that the doctor wanted to talk to me before I left. Before he arrived, I fiddled through my chart and found the pictures he had taken during the colonoscopy. My heart just stopped in disbelief. I saw a picture of a mass in the proximal colon that looked pretty ugly. Although, this was not my specialty, I could tell that something just didn’t look right.
The doctor finally came in and seemed pretty uncomfortable (it’s always a bit uncomfortable and intimidating, I guess, taking care of other doctors, particularly, when you may have bad news). He told me he found something, and had done several biopsies. He told me the results would come back in a few days and “to enjoy my birthday and not to worry.”
Right. Not to worry.
The procedure was done on a Friday and the results of the biopsy would not come back until the following Tuesday. The days waiting for the results of the biopsy were probably the hardest days of my life. I would wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning in terror.
I couldn’t really have cancer, could I? That’s what happened to other people. If I did have cancer, would I emotionally be strong enough to go through the treatment?
Would I not see my children grow up? Would I not see them graduate from High School? And get married? And have children? How would the kids take the news? What would happen if I broke down in front of the kids?
My thoughts were dark would not stop. I felt I was in a nightmare, and I couldn’t wake up.
Finally, after 4 days of waiting, I got the news. On October 7, 2014, the day before my birthday, I received the call. I had colon cancer. The actual words, which I will never forget, were “you have an invasive adenocarcinoma of the colon”.
I honestly don’t know what happened the rest of the day. Other than I walked around like a zombie, still stuck in a nightmare.
I went to see one of my best friends at the hospital who also happened to be a colorectal Surgeon. He was Serbian, and we always talked about the Kings and particularly, Anze Kopitar. Anze apparently is a pretty common name in the Balkans, and he had several cousins by that name.
He told me about the surgery and how after the surgery, the staging would be clear and we would decide if I needed to have chemotherapy.
I asked him if colon cancer was going to kill me. He said no. Colon cancer had a high cure rate, particularly if found at an early stage. I guess there was not much to do other than to hope for an early stage.
The next day, on my birthday, while driving to the first LA Kings game of the year, I told my kids that I had a “little tumor” that had to come out and that the surgery would be done as soon as possible.
I tried as much as possible to sound upbeat. I told them I would be fine. I was worried because they had just seen my brother in-law die of lymphoma. I wanted them to believe that their father would be ok.
I wanted to believe that I was going to be ok. Fortunately, I was strong enough the have the conversation with them without breaking down.
Opening night at Staples seemed pretty much like a blur. I remember the Stanley Cup descending from the rafters, much like Cher coming down on stage during a concert. I remember the banner going up. And I remember, the Kings getting whipped by the Sharks. But that was not unexpected. It was only October.
The colorectal Surgeon scheduled the surgery in a modern clinic for the following Monday. I would be a patient at the same hospital where I had worked for more than 20 years. Because I was very visible at the hospital, the surgeon asked me if I wanted to be admitted under a different name, – an alias. Using a different name, at least would give me some privacy and confidentiality from everyone who worked there. . And depending on the findings of the surgery, I didn’t know if I wanted a lot of visitors walking into my room.
On Sunday night, the day before the surgery, the surgeon called to speak with me. After he answered all of my questions, he asked me if I was watching the hockey game. I told him I was. I was trying to distract myself as much as possible before the surgery. He said, “Koptar scored his first goal of the season tonight”. Let’s admit you to the hospital under the name ‘Anze Kopitar’.
Los Angeles really is a weird hockey town. Every game is sold out at Staples and there are tons of crazy hockey fans throughout the city. It is, however, such a large and diverse city, that you may go an entire day without running into another hockey fan. So for many people at the hospital, the name Anze Kopitar was less known than mine
So on Monday morning, my ex drove me to the hospital where my brother and sister were waiting. I was admitted under the name of Anze Kopitar, with a diagnosis of Colon Cancer.
I had the surgery.
In the recovery room, I remember the surgeon coming in and telling me that everything looked good and the cancer appeared to be confined to the colon. The next day when the final pathology came back, I was ecstatic, grateful and relieved to be a Stage 1.
My kids visited me the 2nd day after surgery. They kept staring at my armband, perplexed that a famous hockey player’s name was written on it.
And, at the end of the day, I had made it through this nightmare, and I was still alive.
And God willing, I will be alive a while longer.
It still is very early in my recovery and I’m not quite sure how this experience will change me. Hopefully I will become a more empathic physician. Hopefully I will become a better father, a better son, a better brother, and a better friend.
Hopefully, my experience will be of some comfort to others in the future.
Hopefully, when I wake up in the morning, the day will mean a bit more now than it did before.
And the trivial things of life will be just that – trivial.
And whenever, I see Anze Kopitar skating down the ice and scoring a goal, it will
always have a very special meaning.
Note: Since being diagnosed with Colon Cancer, I have experienced first hand all of the stigma and misinformation that goes along with that diagnosis. The most common question friends have asked me is “do you have a colostomy?” The answer is no. And rarely is a colostomy required in the treatment of colon cancer. Screening is not only important, but it is life savings. It’s painless and in many instances can prevent cancer from occurring. For more information, visit ccalliance.org or fightcolorectalcancer.org