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Luck and Medicine

I’m not sure I’d ever thought about just how much luck it takes to get a diagnosis for cancer. It wasn’t something I ever considered until my mother got sick. I always assumed that cancer must have a lot of ongoing symptoms, or sudden symptoms, that send a person to the doctor and they discover after a test or two that it’s cancer. I’d never seen someone close to me go through this, and so I had no idea just how much of a role luck plays in medicine.

My mother had been sick for several months, but with unrelated issues. She had an infection at the start of the year that turned into a bladder and kidney infection, but after that was treated she got pneumonia. Once that was cleared up, she began to get ill whenever she ate. She had to insist that the doctor see her. At her appointment, she told him she thought it was irritable bowel. He scheduled a colonoscopy, but seemed to think it was early diabetes or something completely unrelated.

Almost as soon as they began the colonoscopy, they discovered a tumor the size of a tennis ball. It was creating a blockage that if it hadn’t been caught soon, could have burst and killed her – how lucky is that? She hadn’t shown any of the typical symptoms for colorectal cancer, and so she hadn’t considered it a possibility, and neither had her doctor, but the tumor had been in the works for many years and had gone undetected. She was rushed through the process of tests and consultations so that they could schedule surgery as soon as possible. The whole process happened in about two weeks, and her surgeon made sure that he scheduled her before he left town and with enough time for her to recover some and make it to my wedding. During surgery, the surgeon discovered that the tumor was beginning to attach to her uterine wall, and he made the decision to do a full hysterectomy and appendectomy. But it could have been attaching to her bladder; before surgery they couldn’t tell from the CT scans exactly where it was or what it may be affecting. We’re all relieved that it was on organs more easily removed – again, how lucky is that?


She’s been sick since February, and it’s been rough on her. But honestly, I’ve never been more grateful that she came down with an illness. It created a snowball effect that finally led to the discovery of Stage 3b colorectal cancer. If she hadn’t gotten that infection, or pneumonia, I’m not sure what would have happened. If it had happened any later than it did, we may have discovered Stage 4 cancer, instead of cancer that was still treatable.

I always thought medicine was all skill, hard work, and dedication, combined with vigilance from the patient. I never realized just how big of a role luck plays in it as well. This whole process has been hard, but I think we’re all thanking our lucky stars that everything happened this way. It’s something I keep musing about, because I know it could have gone so much worse.

Have you experienced luck in your caregiving or cancer having experiences?