My Turn: How My Grandmother’s Cancer Saved Me

In 1940, a doctor diagnosed my mother's mother with colon cancer during a routine checkup. She was one of the first people to have surgery for the disease. According to family legend, the bleachers surrounding the operating theater were packed with white coats, and the instantly famous surgeon, so overwhelmed by what he and the other doctors had done to her, carried my grandmother back to her room in his own arms.

She had a rudimentary colostomy with some complications, but Mary Sikora Hurd lived long enough to meet my sister and me. I remember her clearly and fondly. She got to live her full life. It was 40 years before another tumor metastasized to her liver. Colonoscopies were still not routine when she died in 1979 at the age of 72. (Your math is correct; she was first diagnosed when she was just 33.)

Although I've been well aware of my family history with cancer, I never really considered myself at risk. I enjoy exercise, like my cruciferous vegetables, don't smoke. I weigh the same I did as a New York University freshman. Since my mother and sister have never shown a symptom, I believed at 35, I'd endure an uncomfortable procedure for the same affirmation.

Then I started bleeding last year at 31. Hemorrhoids, I reasoned. After all, I sit typing in this damn chair too often. As a writer, I've developed an imagination that can create both wonderful fantasies and wild nightmares, and I've learned to ignore the nightmares. I finally got the colonoscopy in August. I had let the cancer grow nine months.

Before the biopsy came back, I met with a surgeon. I tried to look as sheepish as I felt. Go easy, Doc, I thought. He didn't. Instead, he doled out the worst-case scenario. This is how it's going to happen. Surgery, we cut this much out, we see about chemo, prognosis, and whether you might ever use the john normally again. In that location it is definitely cancer. As I sat down with the accountant, the surgeon put his hand on my mother's shoulder. We'll do the best we can for him. The girls behind the counter were crying for me as we walked out to get my first full torso CAT scan. It was a bad day.

Every card, visit and call, even the ones I didn't feel like taking some days, got me through what turned out to be a relatively short period. We found a different, optimistic surgeon who took a personal interest. I had surgery a week later. They opened me below my navel and removed a foot of my gut. My roommate from college, now a neonatologist, said I wouldn't miss it and I don't. The tumor was a T1. At T2, you consider chemo. They caught mine early enough, despite my snail's pace in getting it checked, which meant no colostomy, no radiation. Six months later I was doing yoga.

On Halloween I had dinner with friends, good friends who weren't afraid to ask me the private questions. We laughed hard at my misfortune and it felt energizing. Then they asked whether I felt lucky or unlucky. I couldn't answer that one right away. The first time I said out loud that it was all over, my hand balled into a fist to knock wood, but I stopped. My mind said, "Don't speak too soon." That act of superstition now seemed inappropriate, a blaspheme for evermore. And felt like it was a wrong against someone. I couldn't think against whom until a few days later.

Of course, it was my grandmother, and possibly every patient since her. To suggest my fortune was a whim of the fates or in any way conditional would be a slap in the face of my doctors and all those not as lucky. I am alive because of what my grandmother went through and what my mother went through caring for her.

Am I lucky? You bet I am. We all are. We are lucky to be alive in this time, and our even luckier grandchildren will look back on our lives with the same incredulity we use to glance at the stoic faces in daguerreotypes. It isn't luck that got us here, however. It is the hard work of doctors and scientists and patients. It's the struggle of all of us to survive and progress.