Monday, April 13, 2009

colorectal cancer

This is very difficult for me to deal with, both because I'm not ready to come to terms with it and because I know so little.

My father was recently diagnosed with advanced rectal cancer, a form of colon cancer that (obviously) spreads to the rectum. What this means is over the next ten months, he will undergo a series of radiotherapy, chemotherapy, and surgery, which will leave him weakened and unable to work, due to his physical state, his lack of technical skills, and his age (53). My grandmother and great-grandfather both died of colon cancer, at increasingly younger ages -- my great-grandfather in his 70s, my grandmother in his 60s, and now I'm facing the very real possibility that my father might not even live that long. What this means, since the risk of colon cancer is strongly influenced by family history, is that I need to be extremely careful about my diet and health, which is easier said than done: I've been consciously trying to cut down on red meat but haven't managed to consume more fiber yet, and I want to quit smoking but always tell myself one more pack.

I want to look at this at another angle, though, which is the ways in which family health issues have been retold and reinvented. I only found out a month ago that my grandmother died of colon cancer; I vividly remember my mother telling me that she had died from a heart attack, a memory that has fueled much of my reflection on my relationship with my grandmother. In retrospect, I think she died because her heart was weakened by chemotherapy, a fact I must have forgotten. How much easier and less complicated to disregard those complications when I reimagine my grandmother's death. Having grown up on the other side of the world, I never had a chance to really know my grandmother. Of course I'd heard some things about her and I'd visited her once in Beijing, and she stayed with my family in America for a while, but that was all when I was very young, not quite old enough to understand that many of my friends visited their grandparents every year, every month, every week. So when my mother told me about my grandmother's death--I think a few days before Halloween--how could I understand the significance of that, of a death in the family, when I had only been with her for maybe six months of my entire life?

My father left my family when I was around 8 or 9. In the early years I visited him every summer, but as time went on and he remarried, I began to speak to him less and less frequently. The last time I talked to him, he called me to ask why my mother wasn't answering the phone. That must be when he told her about his diagnosis. She kept it a secret from me, too; I had to learn from my brother, and even then he didn't know what was wrong, just that something was bad. When she finally told me, two or three weeks after the diagnosis, and explained the plan for treatment, I was obviously upset, but also angry that she wouldn't tell me straight up, but instead said, "Don't you want to know what's wrong," as if I had to ask to find out; angry that she didn't think it was her responsibility to tell me but rather that she needed to wait for me to ask her first, even though I had no idea how serious it was or even how to ask. I was angry that she wouldn't tell me anything the first time, and didn't want to tell me this time.

But mostly, I'm angry that I still don't have the courage to call my dad.

1 comment:

  1. Feeling feministaApril 18, 2009 at 9:16 PM

    Thank you for sharing something really personal.