Kervin Gossen’s wife, Rhonda, nagged him for 5 years before he talked to a doctor about colon cancer screening. Gossen’s mother had colon cancer in her 60s, and his grandparents died of it in their 50s. Rhonda knew a family history of colon cancer was a reason to talk to the doctor about getting screened early, before age 50, which is when most people should start screening. But Gossen put it off. “Part of me didn’t want to know,” he said.
Finally, at age 53, Gossen went in for a physical, his first in 7 years. The doctor sent him home with a fecal test kit, which can pick up tiny amounts of blood in the stool that could indicate the presence of colon polyps (growths) or cancer. In Gossen’s case, the test results were positive, so he was scheduled for a colonoscopy to check for colon cancer. A colonoscopy can also be used to check for cancer or pre-cancer in people with no symptoms. If polyps are found, they can be removed before they turn into cancer.
A ‘whirlwind’ of treatment
Gossen got the bad news in December 2006. He calls his diagnosis of colon cancer “the beginning of a whirlwind.” His cancer had grown through the bowel wall, but fortunately it had not yet invaded other organs or lymph nodes. He and his doctors decided on an aggressive treatment that would include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
“I should have done it [gotten screened] sooner because of my family history,” said Gossen. “If I had done it earlier, it would have been polyps, and I would have been OK.” On the other hand, Gossen said, he’s glad he hadn’t waited any longer: “I asked my doctor about that, and he told me the tumor is like a jar of marbles. If I’d waited any longer for the colonoscopy, the jar would have busted and the marbles would have gone everywhere. I’d have had tumors all over my body.”
In all, Gossen’s treatment lasted about a year. He called it extensive and grueling. He had 30 radiation treatments, and a whole year of chemotherapy. He endured 8 hours of surgery that included an ostomy, in which part of the intestine is attached to an opening in the abdomen to let out body wastes. A removable collecting bag is connected to the opening to hold the waste. In many cases, an ostomy is temporary, and can be reversed through surgery after the patient has had time to heal.
Gossen’s ostomy was temporary, but he didn’t know that until he woke up from surgery. The doctor had told him if he woke up and the collecting bag was on the right side, it was temporary; the left meant it was permanent. “My first question after surgery,” said Gossen, “was to ask which side the bag was on. It was on the right side, which meant ‘temporary.’”
“It’s something that I could have lived with. It was just the vanity,” said Gossen about the ostomy. “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was just an inconvenience. I told myself that even if it was permanent, I’d still be alive. I would be able to watch my grandkids grow up.”
Telling his story
Gossen says his battle with cancer strengthened his faith in God, brought him closer to his wife, and taught him some things.
“Stuff isn’t as important as it used to be. Surviving cancer makes you aware that life is precious, so appreciate every day that you’ve got.”
The experience also motivated Gossen to help others by telling his story. He began speaking about it publicly in 2008, when he attended his first Relay For Life event in Weatherford, Oklahoma. The American Cancer Society Relay For Life is held annually in communities all over the world to raise money for research and to provide information and services to cancer patients and caregivers. Gossen has been at Relay every year since, telling his story and walking the survivors’ lap, and with his wife, the caregivers’ lap. “Every time I do the walk it’s very emotional and very humbling,” he said. “The second time, I take my wife and I get emotional doing it.”
Today Gossen is back at work, and says he feels good. But he jokes he looks a bit scruffy. First, he stopped shaving to support a movement that brings awareness to men’s health issues. Then he began growing out his hair to donate to an organization that makes wigs for cancer patients. He gets regular checkups to make sure his cancer hasn’t come back. And he strongly recommends that others get to the doctor for screening earlier than he did. “It was too close,” he said.