TERRY’S COLONDAR BIO
Terry looks like what people expect to see when they think about colorectal cancer, and he was at even greater risk because he had a family history. He finally got a colonoscopy after having rectal bleeding and was diagnosed with stage I colon cancer. After surgery, Terry returned to his job as an assistant principal and athletic official, which helps keep him young. He enjoys telling his story and showing his scar to co-workers and students to show that you never know who colorectal cancer has affected.
Terry passionate about how he lives his life, but tries not to take himself too seriously. He wants people to know that early detection and a sense of humor are important tools in beating cancer.
TERRY’S STORY AS TOLD BY TERRY:
My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1995 at the age of 72. It was on the right side just above the appendix. My older brother and I were alerted that we both needed colonoscopies before we turned 50. My famous quote was “nobody’s going to stick that hose up my butt”; after all, I am a guy. That’s a very familiar thing to hear when a group of guys get together as most will start to squirm at the thought. To say I was a bit apprehensive is a gross understatement!
In 1997, I began to notice some abdominal pain, mostly on the left side. Accompanying this were periods of diarrhea. I found out later that some of this pain was caused by gallstones. On February 19, 1999, I was stricken with severe pain radiating across my abdomen. Later I found out that this was probably a gall bladder attack. Three days later, severe cramping returned while I was at school. A trip to the bathroom resulted in more diarrhea, but this time it was accompanied by a significant amount of blood. I was in a state of shock. Immediately I left school and drove myself to the ER for an exam. Following tests and blood work, the ER doctor told me “it’s time for a colonoscopy”. I managed to put the test off until spring break as I hate to miss school for anything… after all, the doctor said it was probably colitis or something other than that other “C” word.
On the morning of April 6th, I found myself in the darkened room while the test was conducted. I knew I was in big trouble when I awoke to find my wife in the room with me. Without speaking a word, I knew that the doctor’s message was one I didn’t want to hear. He had discovered what appeared to him to be a malignant tumor on the right side above the appendix… the same spot as my mother’s. The doctor’s attitude was that it was probably malignant, but at an early stage. His reassurances didn’t make me feel any better. A biopsy was completed and his casual diagnosis was correct. Once it was diagnosed, I couldn’t get into the operating room fast enough. I had surgery two weeks later.
I went back to work for seven days between the end of my spring break and the surgery to get my affairs in order. I was an assistant principal, so I had to prepare an administrative intern to assume my position for whatever period of time that I was absent. I prepared our staff with a memo explaining my diagnosis and the surgery I was to face. I didn’t want rumor to spread about what was wrong with me. I heard from one student that he had heard that I had brain cancer and I was going to die. I tried to keep my sense of humor sharp by telling him that my rumored demise was grossly overstated.
My operation occurred on April 20, 1999… the same day as the tragedy at Columbine High School. Ironically, my surgery began at 1:25 p.m. That corresponded to the start of the shooting. I was informed of the tragic events early the next morning following my operation. I spent the next week reading the paper and watching CNN. The high school in which I worked experienced many of the same chaotic problems that seemed so prevalent throughout the country. In a sense I am glad that I didn’t have to experience the post-Columbine days of rumors and confusion. However, many of the same problems arose following 9/11/01. When I did return to school five weeks later, things were getting back to normal. I went back to work on May 25th. I returned to umpiring summer softball late in June. Things returned to normal and I regained my strength and endurance gradually throughout the summer.
One of my fondest memories that I couldn’t believe was the outpouring of love and support I received from my staff. I really believe that I received more cards than there were staff members (72) in the building. I was brought to tears when I returned to school. That had been my fifth year at that school. I was well-established and my efforts to support them in their very difficult roles were highly appreciated.
Once staff members have found out my story, I have become the “go-to-guy” when one of them is facing “the scope”. My role has always been to reassure them and to downplay any unpleasantness. The benefits of the test far outweigh an evening on the toilet. A 35 year-old math teacher came to me one morning in tears because she was experiencing rectal bleeding and she was facing a colonoscopy. In her own mind, she was already dead and buried. A few days later she appeared relieved to find out that her situation was very minor and she would be fine.
A few students at my current school are aware that I had cancer seven years ago. The blue band I wear on my wrist is my statement that I am a survivor. I will tell them as much information as they want. Most teenagers equate cancer with death. My reassurance to them is that most forms of cancer are curable when early detection takes place. Colon cancer is one of the most curable forms of cancer when detected early. This is a life lesson that each student needs to learn as early as possible.
The one thing I want people to know is that I’m a typical male. I’m of the age when people are supposed to get tested. The following year after my surgery, I had another colonoscopy and had a polyp removed from my rectum. I’ve been polyp-free ever since. Currently, I am on the five-year cycle for colonoscopy. The test is not fun. The prep is the worst part but the drugs do a wonderful job of making the entire experience bearable.
I have a good friend who is a school superintendent with a history of colon cancer on both sides of his family. He resisted getting tested for years. When he finally did, he had several polyps removed. A local basketball coach, Dan, was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer just before I was diagnosed. He had to endure several months of chemo prior to his surgery. His post-operative experience was far more difficult than was mine as he had a temporary colostomy along with additional chemo-therapy. Dan’s surgery occurred on April 29th, just two days after I went home. I remember him telling me as we talked just after my diagnosis, “Terry, there’s one thing far worse than finding out that you have colon cancer… it’s not finding out that you have colon cancer.” Dan is a seven plus year survivor, retired from teaching and coaching, and enjoying life.
Two weeks after I was released from the hospital, my brother had his colonoscopy. He did have one polyp that was removed without any complications. I have three daughters, and one has had her first colonoscopy due to some minor rectal bleeding. Because of the substantial family history, the doctor felt it prudent to perform the test. All three of my daughters are resigned to the fact that the colonoscopy will be a significant part of their lives for years to come.
My oldest daughter, Corrie, was a paramedic when I was diagnosed. It was funny how she could walk in and out of the hospital whenever she wanted while I was recovering. Later she worked at a hospital as she worked on her nursing degree. Corrie was married in 2003, finished her nursing degree, and moved to California with her husband, who works in the radiology department of Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. Corrie is currently 29. My middle daughter, Brienne, is 27 and is a graduate student in psychology. My youngest, Robyn, is a travel agent and is 24. All three of my daughters will be tested before their 40th birthdays. They all have been in the house while I prepped for the test, and none of them are intimidated.
Women take these things so much better than men. My wife, Judy, was a special education teacher for 24 years and has been a high school principal for the past two years. We do share many “war stories”. We’ve been married for 34 years and are the best of friends; that is so important to a relationship, especially when things are tough. In college, I had known her for three or four months before we started dating. On our first date, I took her to watch me officiate a basketball game.
We have horses on our property; we have about eleven acres. On the day I was diagnosed, Judy told me she spent a lot of time talking to the horses and crying while she was in the barn. While the doctor did express his belief that it was an early stage of cancer, one never does know for sure. Judy was always so supportive while I recovered. Corrie and Robyn, the oldest and the youngest, had the attitude that, “oh it’s no big deal… you’re going to be fine!” Brienne, on the other hand, had a more difficult time dealing with the ideal that her dad had cancer. Through it all, my “girls” rallied to my support and made my recovery so much easier. Three weeks into my recovery, I “helped,” along with Judy, move my daughter from her dorm room after her first year of college. Judy and Brienne would be lifting heavy boxes and furniture and I would be following along with pillows and boxes of Kleenex. I’d lift my shirt and show my fresh scar to people saying that I had just had surgery and wasn’t a slave driver making the women do all of the heavy work.
Perhaps the #1 most important thing I found to help me through my ordeal was my sense of humor. The ability to laugh and to find humor in almost any situation is so important. The best example was in the recovery room following my surgery. As I regained consciousness and saw my family surrounding my bed I immediately thought of my favorite movie, “Young Frankenstein.” Madeline Kahn, the reluctant fiancee of Gene Wilder’s character, resists his attempts for a patient kiss with the words, “No tongue.” As my wife bent over to give me a kiss, my first words uttered were “no tongue, no tongue.” The entire room cracked up. Another memory is walking through the hospital hallways after surgery with my butt hanging out of my gown… you just don’t care. I met my surgeon on Thursday before my surgery. He performed a sigmoidoscopy on me that day as a part of my pre-operative workup. That Saturday I attended a baseball game in Cleveland. He walked right past me. I told my wife, “there’s my surgeon, but he won’t recognize me. I don’t think he’s ever seen my face.”
I feel truly blessed. I am so fortunate that my disease was caught at state I. Surgery was my cure… no chemo… one visit to an oncologist for a “pep talk” to encourage me to change my life style and to keep my schedule of appointments for the rest of my life. I appreciate life so much more now.
My mother’s experience with colon cancer helped me. Mine has helped my brother, and in a sense it prepares my daughters for their futures and what they need to deal with a family history of colon cancer so that early detection may keep them from the need for surgery.