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A Tribute to my Husband, Bob Flemming

By Donna Flemming

April 25, 2003

I am sharing my story with you, in hopes that the pain, suffering and heartache that come with colorectal cancer can be reduced.

My husband, Bob, died of colon cancer a year ago this month. Bob and I raised three children and we were looking forward to celebrating our 35 wedding anniversary and our lives as empty nesters. But this wasn’t meant to be. We started our family early and probably had more blessings in our lives than many. We were looking forward to many more; like the grandchild who will become part of our family this September.

We had not heard of colon cancer or even the word polyp. We were not aware of the possible symptoms, risks or of the simple test that could have saved Bob’s life or at least given him more time. Bob was only 53 years old, strong, healthy, and athletic when he was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. We were informed that he may only have 6 months to live. Bob was very conscientious about his health. He never smoked, he was not overweight, he played competitive sports and he went for his annual checkups.

The awareness, prevention, and early detection of colorectal cancer should be as well known as that for lung, prostate, breast and skin cancers. I believe we were complacent in thinking that we couldn’t get cancer because we never smoked. We protected ourselves from the sun and we went for our prostate and breast exams. We didn’t have the knowledge to protect ourselves from colorectal cancer. Our doctor didn’t enlighten us to the risk factors and symptoms associated with colon cancer. We were not asked if there was any history of colon cancer or polyps in the family or offered a fecal occult blood test at 50 years old.

Bob went to emergency with severe abdominal pain and vomiting in October 2001 to discover a tumor causing a blockage in his colon and spots on his lymph nodes and liver. He had surgery to remove the tumor in November. He no sooner recovered from the surgery than the cancer came back and he had to undergo another surgery in January 2002. He died only five and a half months after diagnosis.

When I look back over the past five years or so, I recall many questionable symptoms. Bob had frequent abdominal discomfort that would come and go he would simply take a tums, alka-seltzer, maalox or zantac to ease his condition. Bob ate his apples and bran cereal everyday to keep regular and avoid constipation. He started to avoid spicy foods and eating too late at night to avoid stomach upset. None of this seemed out of the ordinary. A lot of people suffer abdominal discomfort, heartburn, and indigestion or gas occasionally. If it’s not common, why are there so many products on the drug stores shelves and advertised on television to bring relief?

Have you seen the television commercial showing 3 men so glad that there was maalox so they could enjoy their pizza and other high fat junk food? Bob’s eating habits were not perfect but he was not overweight, his motto was ’everything in moderation’. He didn’t think he was any different than anyone else.

Like many Canadians we probably ate too many refined, processed and fried foods, at the expense of not eating enough fruit and vegetables. Canada’s Food Guide prescribes 5 to 10 a day; we like the average Canadian probably only ate 3 or 4 a day. Improving our eating habits may have lowered his risk of developing cancer.

About two years before diagnosis a major warning bell went off but we did not respond to it. He had severe abdominal pain that lasted a couple of days then went away - he never thought to mention it to the doctor. Bob was very active but had become more irritable and lethargic which we blamed on other stresses in our lives.

His general abdominal discomfort and backaches became more frequent and recurring, often during the night. Bob’s stomach would become hard and distended but we did not recognize it. He experienced bloating but again we didn’t recognize it. He complained about a feeling of over fullness after he ate. He felt a continuing need to move his bowels. I sensed something was wrong and I know he did too but we couldn’t identify it.

The symptoms do exist but they are subtle. Bob’s recurring abdominal discomfort and pain were early warning signs of a colon in distress and should have been brought to his doctor’s attention. Bob either ignored his symptoms or blamed them on many different causes including mid-life changes. Even after diagnosis Bob denied having any symptoms. In hindsight the symptoms are very obvious. It’s too bad we didn’t know then what I know today. I cannot explain and I do have regrets and I wonder to this day why we didn’t think that these symptoms were not enough to take us to the doctor.

Bob was very careful about monitoring and maintaining his health. Without the knowledge of colon cancer we overlooked the recurring subtle aches and discomforts that we thought were normal. We didn’t know an improvement in our diet could reduce our risks and we didn’t get screened. I lost the man I shared my life with and I hope that you will talk more about colorectal cancer with your doctor, your family, your friends, neighbours and co-workers.

Bob faced his cancer with amazing courage and without bitterness. He wanted everyone we knew to be screened for colon cancer. I want his struggle to be meaningful so I’m sharing our story with you. Please stop and think about the risks, prevention, symptoms and early screening of colorectal cancer. Talk about it with everyone you know. If you are 50, the next time you see your doctor ask about colorectal cancer screening.

Bob was not a celebrity but his friends and family loved his enjoyable wit, his passion for music and sports and the unconditional love of his family. I miss him everyday.

I’d like to finish by sharing this little verse with you:

Cancer is so limited

It cannot cripple love, It cannot shatter hope, It cannot corrode faith, It cannot destroy peace, It cannot kill friendship, It cannot suppress memories, It cannot silence courage, It cannot invade the soul, It cannot steal eternal life, It cannot conquer the spirit.

Donna Flemming

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