No, this blog isn’t about Delhi Belly. It isn’t even about India. This entry is about my friend Arijit, a PhD student at Arizona State University, who is battling Stage IV colon cancer. He had just turned 30 when he was diagnosed a year ago.
Colon cancer is a disease that I have an unfortunate knowledge about. When I was 17, my mother was diagnosed with this cancer. I came home after work and found my sister and father crying. I immediately noticed my mother was not there. I freaked out. “Was Mom in a car accident?,” I asked. No. But she was in the hospital because she had cancer. My heart dropped, and I called my best friend. Her mom died of ovarian cancer four years earlier. I told her I didn’t know how to handle it. She rightly told me I didn’t have a choice.
My mom had 15-17 inches of her colon removed. (The reason for the range is the number seems to be getting bigger over the years!) But she was lucky. It had not spread outside the colon. Her doctors also made a very important decision during her surgery — they determined that despite the size of the cancer, her age (49) meant they could still reconnect the plumbing so that she didn’t need a colostomy bag. She never needed chemo and has now been cancer free for almost 11 and a half years.
My friend Arijit wasn’t so lucky. Doctors first thought it was a small tumor that could be removed laparoscopically but discovered during surgery that the cancer had spread throughout the abdominal cavity. Unfortunately, none of this was showing up in scans. The diagnosis was Stage IV. It would be weird to say Arijit is lucky in absolutely any way, but in a very small way he is, because despite the extreme diagnosis the cancer has not spread to vital organs. He’s also lucky because he has an awesome wife, Heather.
Arijit’s case is highly unusual. For one, he’s incredibly young. Colon cancer is often thought of as an older person’s disease. There is no traceable family history that suggests this is genetic. He’s also been tested for gene mutation. Nothing. Diet can be a huge contributor to chances of developing colon cancer, especially red meat, but Arijit is a vegetarian and has been the majority of his life. And he grew up in an Indian household. I can tell you from personal experience that red meat is not part of most Indians’ diets.
When Arijit was diagnosed with cancer, I did the same thing I did when I found out that my mom had cancer: Research. I am a far better researcher now than I was in high school. I learned then that colon cancer is generally a slow growing disease. I also learned that caught in early stages, it is very treatable. These things are still true. But I learned something rather frightening about colon cancer during this round of research: Among young adults, the incidence of colon cancer is increasing and so is the fatality rate. The rise in incidence can likely be attributed to diet, although not in Arijit’s case. But why are more young people dying of this disease than before? Because young adults are generally diagnosed at later stages of the disease than older adults, according to research by the National Cancer Institute and the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
Evidence of this alarming trend has been around for a decade but hasn’t necessarily reached the check-up room. So I urge you that if you have symptoms of colon cancer, including lethargy or rectal bleeding, push your doctor to consider that the cause could be more than anal fissures. It could just be the fissures, so don’t get too scared, but don’t let the doc make the most obvious diagnosis without checking. There are other methods of checking than a full colonoscopy.
You can also help my friend Arijit by visiting poopstrong.org. His treatment has exceeded his Arizona State University insurance plan cap, so he is raising money to pay for chemo and doctor bills. He’s selling “Poop Strong” t-shirts and wrist bands. The wristbands are brown, a color choice that my mother supports. (Why is the color for colon cancer blue, she always asks.) I designed a couple of the t-shirts. Arijit has received top-notch care from his doctors at the University of Arizona Cancer Center. My doctor dad says the treatments that Arijit has been receiving are highly innovative. Perhaps these treatments will become more mainstream in the future and save lives.