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Survivor Interview – Mortimer B.

Mortimer is a colorectal cancer survivor. He talks about ostomies, his relationship with his wife, who was his caregiver, and his community involvement.

An expressive senior man with glasses and facial hair is interviewed against a white background.

I was diagnosed in September 1999. My last treatment was my surgery. My life has been very different since my surgery. I have a different point of view about what I do, with whom I do it, and for how long I have to do it. My wife says I’ve mellowed. What she means is I don’t take things as seriously as I used to before with regard to having to correct the world. I let things go. Shortly after I came out of the hospital, I adopted a notion of Carpe Vitam. That means seize life. That’s my motto, and I try and pass that along to people. Seizing life and all of its meaning and its richness came to be what I’m about and what I want to do.

When I got out of the hospital, I was aware that I was a different guy. I was tired and had very little energy. There’s a condition that I came to know called cancer related fatigue. Of course, that worried me, made me anxious, and upset me. It’s something you can expect after surgery when you get home, but your body adapts and becomes more normal, and you grow out of that. I knew by my own experience and interests that it would help me to not seclude myself from being involved in things. It was during those early times that I came to that notion that what I needed to do was grab onto life and to become active. And that was essentially what I did.

I am grateful to have Marilyn, my wife, with me to help be my caregiver. To this very day, she is my stalwart. We’ve been married for 59 years, but that’s only a small part of it. We’ve known each other since we were kids in fourth grade. We’ve grown in such a way that we’ve given and taken from one another over the years in all ways. So when this cancer appeared in our family, in our life, in my body, it was another event in a long series of interactions and helpings. I don’t even remember this, but she told me that in the hospital room when I was coming out of the anesthetic, “You looked at us and you saw the terrible distress on our faces, and you said, ‘Don’t worry. I’m gonna lick this thing.’” So when we did get home from the hospital and I had in my guts the affirmation that I was gonna lick this thing, we talked about things that needed to be done.

As part of my surgery, they took out a considerably large piece of my colon, and they sewed up my rectum. When my body needs to excrete feces, since I don’t have a rectum, I have a hole in my side that’s connected to my intestine. I wear a wafer and a bag, and I excrete right into the bag. In the hospital, they were very perfunctory in giving us instructions about things to do. We didn’t know hardly anything about how to take care of this and how to do that. In the early days of coming back from surgery, that proved to be a real problem. It was like any new thing, frustrating and annoying. I got anxious and upset and thought, how am I gonna do this? And worst of all, in a way, my body was totally distorted, and I felt very unkind about my body image. I felt dirty, smelly. I felt that everybody knows about what I’ve got. A year or so later, because of the changes inside my body, I had a hernia, and that had to be corrected. My body was very much disrupted internally. Things are not in their ordinary place. Every now and then I look at my body and still get upset and annoyed. But when I consider the alternative, it’s a trivial matter. I ask myself, would you rather hang around and do what you’re doing like this or would you rather just be gone? And the answer is easy. I do not want to be gone. I want to hang around.

I think that I’m a survivor, and people seem to accept that from me and respond in the same way. I’m grateful to be around and want to help where I can. People have asked me, when I first was diagnosed with cancer, was I anxious and worried and fearful of death? I didn’t have the time to do that. My surgery came immediately, because it was an emergency. One night, I saw the toilet bowl full of blood, went to the hospital, and had surgery the next day. They found a mass. When I came out, the effect of the information began to drift in.

Before I had my diagnosis, I knew very little about cancer. I had seen the ads, made a contribution from time to time, but I was ignorant with regard to cancer. When I came out, I went to the literature and tried to learn everything I could. One of the things that I discovered was people who became involved in support groups lived richer, fuller lives than those who did not, but there were no support groups for people with colorectal cancer. Eventually, I started one, which was part of my idea of teaching and being back in the community. I became active in the American Cancer Society. I drove some patients from time to time. Every one of them was amazed when we would chat that I was also a survivor. I’m a member of a special club. We are all grateful to be in the club. We paid our dues and continue paying our dues. For me, as an individual in that club, survivorship is two-fold: I’m happy, grateful, aware of myself that I have the strength and the will to be a survivor and to continue to be a survivor and proud of that, and at the same time, humble in the face of the fact that I’ve had a lot of help in survivorship. Survivorship is one more aspect of who I am. I’m grateful to be a survivor, grateful for the people who’ve helped me to continue to be a survivor.

I don’t rail against God for doing this to me. I’m grateful that I’m past it, grateful for the help that I’ve had to get past it and be past it. There’s also a dark side. I recall coming out of the hospital and thinking back, why did this occur? How come? What did I do that led to this? That was before I had had an opportunity as I have had since then to learn and study a little about lifestyles and things that can lead to cancer. I’m almost 80 years old. I made a deal with God. I’m gonna live to be 90. Why 90? When my grandson was little, five or six years old, we were having a wonderful time playing Ninja soldiers and all kinds of things, the rolling on the floor and tickling and teasing. And one time after he caught his breath, “Grandpa, when I’m a man and I have a boy, you and I and my little boy will all play like this together. Promise me, Grandpa. Promise me.” So I made him a promise. I said, “Okay, I’ll try and you’ll help.” So now at this stage of my life and being a cancer survivor, I need to try hard and I need to make certain that I have everything possible.

Every now and then, I do get anxious. I’m grateful, thankful, full of richness and warmness that I’ve not had a recurrence. I have not, but I could. But if it does, I’ll get past it. I accept the fact that it’s a possibility but recognize the fact that it’s a small probability. I’d rather focus on the being in, rather than the possibility of being out.

My name is Mortimer Brown, I’m 79 years old, and I’m a four-year survivor of colorectal cancer.

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