Survivor shares victory story
By Chinta Strausberg, Chicago Crusader
Led by renowned internist Dr. Damon Arnold, physicians and a colon cancer survivor urged people to have a colorectal screening—an exam that could literally make the difference between life and death.
During a recent panel discussion at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition headquarters, 930 E. 50th St., Chicago Arnold, who is medical director for Health Care Service Corp., was joined by Dr. Andrew Albert, Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Dr. Joaquin J. Estrada, a specialist in colon and rectal surgery, and a colon cancer survivor, Robert Rhodes, Jr.
Dr. Arnold said while many people have a fear of the exam or concern about taking time off to be tested, they all too often don’t consider “the consequences of not getting screened…. It has a deep, deep impact on peoples’ lives not to get screened early on. Everyone needs to be screened.
“In the African American community, we have a tendency to get diagnosed late during the course of the disease and have the lowest survival rate and one of the highest morbidity and mortality rates,” Arnold said.
Dr. Estrada noted, “Prevention is the key.” He said the disease in 95 percent of people who are diagnosed could be prevented. “This is a preventable disease. Nobody has to get colon cancer….”
After the PUSH live broadcast, Dr. Albert provided free colorectal screenings to 20 people. “They didn’t know they needed to be checked.” Albert said their appearance at PUSH was a “big win for us because we could get the people that didn’t know the colon screening was available.” He urged others to spread the word and to ask their friends and family to get checked.
“Only 40 percent of the community gets checked, and it’s actually going down.” Albert said those age 45 and over need to have colon screening.
No one knows that better than Rhodes, who at the age of 42 was shocked when doctors diagnosed him as having colorectal cancer; after all, he ate healthy foods and thought he was on top of his game when it came to living a healthy lifestyle.
But it was the spring of 2015 when Rhodes, the son of a Baptist preacher, said he had “issues with his bowel movement and had blood in his stool.” When he went to his doctor, Rhodes said his physician attributed it to hemorrhoids because he lifted heavy items on his job. “It went away for a minute, but it came back and this time it was more.”
Rhodes had a colorectal screening even though his doctor still insisted nothing was wrong with him. “When the results came back, my doctor told me I had stage three colon cancer. It didn’t add up at all. Everything just paused… life was slow motion for me. My life had to start all over again.”
Doctors ordered an immediate surgery, and they took out a portion of his colon near his rectum. “They said it was a possibility they may not be able to reconnect it and that there is a possibility I would have to wear the bag. I told them I can’t wear a bag at 42-years-old.” Luckily, his doctors were able to reconnect the colon.
After the surgery Rhodes, a father of two, had to have six-months of chemotherapy to “increase my odds of living. My skin got dark. My feet, my hands, became real numb and tingly and sensitive to cold weather. I couldn’t drink anything cold.”
Rhodes thought he was out of the woods, but later learned he then had to do 30-days of radiation. “That was very painful, but I had to fight for my life.” After his radiation treatment, he went straight to work.” That was January 2016. “I went back to work…got my life back.”
His medical miracles didn’t last long. A year later, Rhodes said his doctor saw two spots on his liver. He had to take more chemotherapy—a treatment he said he hates. “They bring your chemo bag out and all the medicines they’re going to give you. The outside of the bag has a picture of a skull and a crossbar on it…highly toxic. They wear gloves, masks, and gowns and cover up themselves when they touch this bag. They hook it up to you.
“I am a very spiritual person. I said that’s death in that bag, but what we’re going to do is to switch that and say that’s life in that bag,” Rhodes said. Every time he went to the center he said he prayed for that bag. Rhodes said the doctors told him he was the only patient who didn’t get sick after getting chemotherapy. “I believed I would beat this.”
After the therapy, Rhodes had to have 70 percent of his liver removed. While doctors told him he had to be in the hospital for five days, Rhodes said he was hospitalized for two days. “They told me when I go home I would be comatose, no energy. Not so,” Rhodes said. “I walked up and down stairs, cooked… after a week.”
“I’m a spiritual man…” the now 45-year-old Rhodes says. On the day of his surgery Rhodes, who works for Leo Burnett in accounting, said he prayed, did some yoga stretches and said to himself, “I will go in there with the spirit of a lion. I told them, ‘Give me my medicine, cut me, let’s go.’ Two-months later I’m at Rainbow PUSH telling people my story.”