My Dad’s Stage 3 Cancer Had Its Own Agenda

He stood back in his office. Stunned. Dr. Douglas Rex stood looking at that photograph from five years before.

It was clean. Clear. Cancer-free. There had been some polyps on the colonoscopy then, and that’s why my dad had been asked to come back five years later.

But the cancer was early. It wasn’t supposed to be there.

“I can still remember looking at the dates,” says Dr. Rex, M.D., a gastroenterologist at IU Health. “He had come back almost exactly five years to the date. He was off by one day. He had done everything he was supposed to do.”

The cancer didn’t care about medical guidelines or screening tests. It didn’t care that my dad was a fit, 61-year-old runner. It didn’t care that he had done everything right.

That rectal cancer had its own agenda.

“It is rare. It has only happened three or four times in my career,” says Dr. Rex, “where a cancer developed at or before the time we told somebody to come back.” 

On Jan. 13, 2011, my dad Dan Hunsinger’s cancer showed up in those colonoscopy pictures at the opening of the rectum, really close to the skin line. It showed up small, yet fierce. It showed up before it was supposed to.

“I remember it very well,” Dr. Rex says.

***

Remember it well. You don’t forget things like this, moments when the floor starts moving underneath you and the walls started closing in. I was sitting in the newsroom of IndyStar, writing a story on the latest, funky fitness trend hitting Indianapolis.

My cell phone rang, a call from my mom, Linda Hunsinger. Strange, I thought. She usually doesn’t call when I’m at work. Her voice sounded devastated, a voice I’d never heard.

“You know your dad had his colonoscopy today? Well, they found cancer.” I bolted from my desk. I remember going to the elevator and riding it up and down and up and down as I talked to her. I remember my legs buckling. I remember sitting down on the floor of the elevator.

I already hated that cancer. I imagined it as a slimy, evil monster, snarling inside my dad’s body. Smirking that it got one past all of us. Arriving before it was supposed to.

Trying to take away the most special man on the earth.

***

Every little girl thinks it -- that her dad is the best. I’m not just saying that about mine. Dan Hunsinger really is.

My sister, Lisa, and I were blessed with a dad who was involved 100 percent in our lives – before many dads did that sort of thing.

I remember him putting tape on my bangs to cut them. I remember him at every sporting event and grocery trip. I remember him going to father-daughter dances for my Brownie troop. 

I remember countless tennis games on the weekends. I remember friends in high school pouring into the house to get math help. He’s one of the smartest men you’ll ever meet.

And he’s kind. Just plain kind.

And for the past six years he’s been talking about this man named Dr. Rex. I’d never gotten to meet the doctor my dad says saved his life.

As I prepared to interview him, I felt nervous. What do you say to that man? That man who saved your dad’s life? 

Dr. Rex quickly deflects that sort of talk. He doesn’t want to hear it. I can tell by the tone of his voice, the modesty in it. Dr. Rex doesn’t want to hear how our family says he saved my dad’s life, how my dad credits him with tracking down that evil cancer as soon as he could.

“Your dad really saved himself because he came back when he was supposed to. I just did my job,” Dr. Rex says. “He thinks I’m great because that’s the way he looks at the world. He’s the sweetest man you’ll meet.”

I smile to myself. He sure is.

***

Here’s the thing. Dr. Rex doesn’t think he saved my dad’s life. But he did. My dad was 6 months from retiring in January 2011. He was due for that colonoscopy. And he debated putting it off.

“My time came up and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to retire in six months so I can just wait,’” my dad says. “Then Dr. Rex’ office sent me a note, a reminder. I thought, ‘I can’t take a chance of losing my spot with Dr. Rex.’”

That’s how much my dad adored Dr. Rex. How impressed he had been with him as he’d gotten his colonoscopies in the past. My mom goes to Dr. Rex, too.

So, it was a good thing that note came in the mailbox. It had been five years. And, no one knew it at the time, but that cancer had already spread to a lymph node and was Stage 3. 

On Jan. 13, 2011, Dr. Rex emerged from his office, after looking at those photos and dates. He had something he needed to tell my dad.

“He came back into the room and told me I had rectal cancer and most likely would need a colostomy and surgery to remove it,” my dad says. “At the time, the cancer was thought to be Stage 1 or maybe Stage 2.”

This is where things get amazing, at least for my dad, from a medical care standpoint.

Within two hours of that colonoscopy, my dad was at IU Health University Hospital getting an ultrasound. By that afternoon, he was back at Dr. Rex’ office.

Dr. Rex wanted to see him again. My dad’s not sure why. But I am. Dr. Rex wanted to see my dad to make sure he was OK.

When my dad arrived that afternoon, just hours after his diagnosis, Dr. Rex had scheduled an appointment the next day with a surgeon. My dad would be meeting the man who would get rid of that cancer.

On Jan. 14, 2011, my dad walked in for his appointment with Bruce Robb, M.D., a colorectal surgeon at IU Health.

My dad won’t forget it; Dr. Robb stayed late to get my dad in that day for an appointment.

He explained my dad’s options. Surgery to remove the cancer without a colostomy. Or surgery to remove the entire area and have a colostomy.

Dr. Robb told my dad he knew that was a big decision. He knew he would need some time. He knew he would be scared and thinking about it all weekend.

So, he turned to my dad at the end of the appointment and said: “Call me Sunday afternoon and let me know which one you’re leaning toward.” 

My dad couldn’t believe it.

“What big-name known doctor is going to talk to me on a Sunday afternoon at home?” my dad says. “But he gave me a number to call and I called it that Sunday and he called right back.”

That’s the kind of doctors and surgeons my dad was dealing with.

Within 12 days of his diagnosis, my dad was in surgery. Five days later he was home, with a colostomy, a new way of life and ready to start chemotherapy and radiation.

***

On this Father’s Day, my dad is cancer free. He just celebrated his 68th birthday. He’s around to do the stuff he loves – which is all about family. He goes to all his six grandchildren’s events. He has lunch out almost every day with my mom.

He is grateful for his life. And he is grateful for his doctors.

The lesson in all of this, of course, is the colonoscopy. My dad wants people to remember to get them. So does Dr. Rex.

“The most important thing is he did come back when he was told to come back and a lot of people don’t do that,” Dr. Rex says, “The kudos all go to your dad for following up.”

The rarity of my dad’s cancer attacking at the time it did prompted Dr. Rex to write an article about his case that was published in “Gastronintestinal Endoscopy” in 2012.

The headline: Distal rectal cancer appears in 61-year-old male five years after a normal photograph of the distal rectum.

Yes. This cancer most definitely had its own agenda. It was trying to get one past all of us by arriving before it was supposed to.

And I know they don’t really want to hear it, but thank you Dr. Rex and Dr. Robb for putting that evil cancer in its place.

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

   Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.


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