Empty Chairs

Loss.  Loneliness.  Emptiness.  The feelings are palpable. 

In my dining room I have the antique chairs (circa 1870) that once filled my childhood home.  My family home was once a Civil War Stagecoach Inn, a landmark filled with rich history.  But to me, the home where I grew up was all about family, security, unwavering support and love.

When I look at these chairs, the chairs where my Mom and Dad once sat, I reflect on all of life’s occasions where their presence, laughter and conversation is greatly missed.  From Graduations to Holidays; Birthdays to Baby Showers; and from Sunday Dinners to every day milestones both big and small.

My reflection leads me down the path to ask what life may have been if my parents had not been diagnosed with colon cancer while in the prime of their lives.  I don’t like this turn in the path – even after so many years, this thought takes me back to the time of their deaths.  To the time when nothing made sense to a young girl in 7th grade losing her Father.  Or being a senior in college losing my Mother – my best friend and confidante.

We all have experienced great loss.  No one is immune to the sick, gnawing feeling that we carry in our hearts.

We go about our daily lives, cope with our own unique feelings the best we can, and in many cases put on a brave face in front of others.   For me, the best way to cope has always been to help others understand this disease, and to advocate for prevention and screening.  And so for the past twenty-five years I have tried to turn my pain into a purpose, becoming a passionate colon cancer advocate.  As Katie Couric said, “Sometimes you find your passion.  And sometimes your passion finds you.” 

Trust me, I wish this passion never had to find me.  I wish I had never heard the words: colon cancer.  I loathe this disease, and what it did to my family.  But helping others has been and will continue to be my passion, and in doing this work, I keep the spirit of my Mom and Dad with me. 

Medical advances are significant since my parents were diagnosed in the 1970s and 1980s.  A generation ago, there were not screening tests readily available for patients experiencing symptoms.  Colonoscopy was in its infancy and still in clinical trials.  Exploratory surgery was the diagnostic tool of choice.  I recall in my Mother’s case, the surgeon saying, “We opened her up and all we saw was cancer, there’s nothing we could do, but close her back up.” 

Those words haunt me every day. 

Today, however, there are screening tests, colonoscopy and options available.  We have the knowledge and the tests today to help eradicate colon cancer.  We can do this.  We can help alleviate the suffering a colon cancer diagnosis brings.  We may not have had these resources to help prior generations, but we do now.

I hope you’ll join me in this call to action:  During the upcoming Holidays, take a moment and ask your loved ones about your family health history.  Do you have any colon or GI cancers in your family?  Do you have any symptoms or feel that something isn’t quite right?  Trust your intuition and ask your healthcare professional for a screening test.  Screening is the smart choice.  Do this in memory of those who didn’t have a choice.

In honor of my parents, Margaret and Patrick, I remain passionate about eradicating colon cancer.  Please join my efforts so that another family does not have an empty chair where a loved one once sat.