Sunday, March 22, 2020

As colon cancer rises among the young, NU doctors use old tool in a new way

     I wrote this a couple weeks ago, and it got held,  first to find space in the paper, second by all the news regarding the coronavirus. While there is nothing in it about the epidemic riveting our attention, I do think there is a message here that is valuable to anyone facing any kind of dire situation.

     Sometimes fate hits you with both barrels, the good and the bad in one life-altering blast.
     In August 2017, Shannon Harrity found out she was pregnant. Two days later, her husband Sean O’Reilly learned he had metastatic cancer. It had started years earlier in his colon, then spread to his liver.
     O’Reilly’s previous doctors had puzzled over his stomach problems, his bloody stools. Maybe hemorrhoids, they speculated. He was so young — in his late 30s. Too young to bother with a colonoscopy. Too young to worry about what the NU doctors found — spreading colon cancer, Stage 4.
     “You hear the ‘C-word,’ and you think it’s over, you’re dead,” O’Reilly says. “There is no Stage 5. You’re six feet under the ground.”
     Chemotherapy started two weeks later. In a second irony, while he was back at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center for his first chemotherapy session, as the virulent chemicals were dripping into his veins, his wife was across the street at Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital, learning she was carrying twins.
     How does a couple respond to this kind of one-two punch?
     “Happy but devastated,” says O’Reilly, an analyst for the federal government.
     “A lot of life changes in very little time,” says Harrity, who works in human resources for a consulting company. “We were definitely overwhelmed.”
     Even his doctors were moved.
     “Emotional for all of us,” says Dr. Ryan Merkow, O’Reilly’s surgical oncologist. “It had a big impact.”
     O’Reilly was 39 when he learned he had cancer, making him part of a new development doctors have identified but don’t yet fully understand. Colon cancer is down among older Americans — those over 50 — but up sharply among the young, jumping by 20%.
     “We’re definitely seeing a trend here,” says Dr. Mary F. Mulcahy, O’Reilly’s medical oncologist. “Reports from across the United States show it is on the rise in people less than 50, on the decline in every other age group.”
     Nobody knows why.

To continue reading, click here.

Sean O'Reilly holding an example of the hepatic liver artery infusion pump helping him fight colon cancer.


  1. Superb and well researched article, Mr. S. That is especially interesting about the environmental factors and those who have their head in the sand on that should take note. I read it here first, now I best get to the driveway and get the paper that's sitting out there. Good luck to them.

  2. Beautifully written and certainly puts things in perspective.

  3. An eloquent picture of courage and encouragement. As I race towards 80, I feel incredibly and unworthingly lucky, having resisted getting a colonoscopy until past the recommended age. I expect I will survive the corona virus as well, whether I get it or not, though I am trying to follow the rules in this case.

    And a note for those who can’t afford the Sunday paper or don’t regard a trip out to buy the paper as essential as groceries and gasoline, Neil also has a delightful piece in the Drive section of today’s Sun-Times, which even I, no lover of cars, loved.


  4. OT: I see the Driving section of the paper today had your column on test driving. Too funny about your wife not liking fancy cars. Ditto to that.

  5. The rise in colon cancer in those under fifty may have some unknown environmental cause...or it may be something much simpler: Younger people think they are immortal or immune, or that it won't happen to them until they are old geezers...or never.

    That way of thinking took the life of a decades-long friend. His doctors told him that being a vegetarian for decades made him so healthy that he could forego routine colonoscopies. He believed it. At his son's graduation, he got very sick, was hospitalized, and the diagnosis was Stage 4 colon cancer. A family doctor had either missed the original symptoms, or downplayed them.

    He made the long shlep from Ohio to a Texas cancer treatment center in a medical van. The bills were enormous. The trip merely bought him a little more time. He was sent home after the holidays.

    A huge hometown benefit concert for our musician/songwriter friend lasted twelve hours and featured fifteen bands, but he was too weak to attend. He died nine days later. From diagnosis to memorial service (on what would have been his 63rd birthday) took only nine months. At the end, he looked like he was about 112.

    The community lost a vocal activist, a quiet humanitarian, and a staunch homeless advocate. My wife and I lost a friend, as well as a hair stylist who cut my wife's locks for 38 years, and my own for 24. While I sat, and he snipped, we swapped jokes and told stories about our crazy families and discussed sports and politics. And we laughed. A lot. Good times.

    His son was devasted by the loss, and on his blog he wrote a long, long post about his father and the family's ordeal and he had this advice: If you're over fifty (or even 25), and your doctor doesn't suggest a routine's time to find another doctor.

    I was a lot luckier than my friend was...I went 17 years between check-ups...from the age of 50 to age 67. Nothing was found. Same as when they X-rayed my head.


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