As an employee of a health care institution, I consider it my professional obligation to inform you that I’ve had one, and it ain’t that bad. Want to hear more? Perhaps not, but I’ll tell you anyway.
Colonoscopies generally are recommended for people age 50 and older, since they account for more than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases. The procedure, which involves running a thin, tubelike instrument through the colon, helps doctors spot precancerous polyps so they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
As it happens, I wasn’t quite 50 when I had mine, but I had a few minor symptoms that might fall into the “cause for concern” category. My primary care doctor and gastroenterologist weren’t particularly alarmed, but they wanted to play it safe, and they figured I was close enough to my golden years to experience this rite of passage.
I consciously joined the Navy just before the first Gulf War because I had no children and did not see the need for those who had families to risk the consequences of service. Friends and colleagues came back diagnosed (as adults) with pediatric cancers. They did not receive medals, rather a diagnosis that typically resulted in an amputated limb.
I went back to school, as a disabled veteran, to become a nurse to care for those who often have little voice in their prognosis. In the pediatric ICU at Rush, I have cared for children dealing with the ramifications of a cancer diagnosis. I encounter these brave souls as I teach our nursing students in the community.
In the military, one obviously faces danger and encounters enemies both foreign and domestic — often on a daily basis. That is what we signed up for — what we pledged our loyalty to. Children (and their families, however defined) never enlisted in a diagnosis that begins with the big “C.”
In the United States, cancer is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy. One out of 285 U.S. children are diagnosed with cancer before they turn 20 years old. In 2015, about 10,380 children under the age of 15 in the United States alone will be diagnosed with cancer.
I don’t know about you, but for me that’s a heartbreaking statistic. It’s hard to think that so many families will be faced with the possible reality of losing their child before they have a chance to graduate high school, get married, or have children of their own.
Even if pediatric cancer patients successfully fight their cancer, two-thirds of them must endure long-term effects of treatment such as hearing loss, learning disabilities, infertility, heart disease, second cancers, and the list goes on.
Another unpalatable reality is the fact that less than 4 percent of funds for cancer research is allotted specifically toward pediatric cancer research.
“I’m a cardiologist who takes care of adults who were born with heart defects.”
This is what I tell anyone (patients, other physicians, friends or family members) who asks me “what kind of cardiology” I practice. My answer is almost always met with a quizzical look and a polite, “What?”
Everyone knows cardiologists who care for adults who have had heart attacks, or have high blood pressure, heart failure or heart rhythm problems (arrhythmias). These are common heart problems people face as they age.
But adults with congenital (present at birth) heart defects? What does that mean? How many of these patients could there possibly be out there? Don’t these folks just keep seeing the same cardiologist that they saw as a child?
So I tell them about Carrie*. When I first met Carrie, her husband brought her into my office in a wheelchair. A diminutive, 42-year-old woman dressed in a stylish suit, with tubing in her nose attached to an oxygen tank on her wheelchair, she smiled shyly and told me her story. Her husband stood behind her with tears in his eyes as she talked.
Carrie’s parents were told she had a heart murmur when she was nearly two years old and couldn’t keep up with the other kids while playing.
Fatigue, shortness of breath
As a young adult, Carrie remembers her mother telling her that doctors had suggested Carrie have heart surgery. Her parents were reluctant, however, because every child they’d heard of who had heart surgery died. Keep in mind, this was 40 years ago, a time when open heart surgery was a new specialty in its infancy.
Norman Prestine was 88 years old when he was diagnosed with two cancerous masses in his chest in 2001. He came to Rush to undergo surgery to remove them, and he’s come back each of the 13 years since then.
During his recent annual follow-up visit, the hale 101-year-old said hello to his surgeon, Penfield Faber, MD, a relative youth at 84. “It’s always a pleasure to see somebody you’ve operated on for cancer who’s alive and doing well,” says Faber, an emeritus professor of thoracic surgery.
Prestine’s longevity is all the more remarkable for his ability to undergo major surgery in his late 80s, which Faber also performed after first carefully assessing his condition. “He was physiologically much younger than his stated age,” the doctor says. “He was working out. He had all the physical parameters of a younger man. It was apparent that from the shape he was in that would withstand the procedure.”
Prestine attributes his longevity to the basics — eating right and exercising. He walks half an hour on a stair climber in the morning and another 30 minutes on a treadmill in the evening, and eats “everything within reason.”
He was accompanied on his visit to Rush by his wife, Nancy, 86. The couple, who have known each other since the 1960s, married in 1993 after each of their first spouses of more than 40 years passed away. The Prestines live in their own home on Chicago’s northwest side and keep busy with seniors club activities.
Faber performed surgery for more than 50 years before he set aside his scalpel in 2006, retiring from clinical care altogether the next year. But he still continues to teach surgery residents.
Last February, the son of a patient stamped out this message of hope and life in the snow atop our parking garage. What started as a special note to one mom became an image that touched all of us at Rush — our patients, employees, students — and then millions of people around the world.
As 2014 comes to a close, take a moment to think about what has inspired you this year. Wishing you joyful holidays and a peaceful New Year.