GQ

Scar Stories: The Toll of Colon Cancer

, Author

Ibram X. Kendi

Age: 38

Diagnosis: stage IV colon cancer

Current status: cancer-free

Kendi wants to highlight the rate at which colorectal cancer afflicts African American patients, who are 40 percent more likely to die of the disease than those of other races.

My body sent me warnings throughout the fall of 2017. But I ignored them—the weight loss, the fatigue, the constant trips to the bathroom only for nothing to happen. As the symptoms got worse, so did my denial. When I started passing blood clots into the toilet after Thanksgiving, I somehow convinced myself it wasn’t anything serious. I was traveling the country giving lectures on racism and antiracism, and for a while, my intense schedule allowed me to hide what was happening. But my partner, Sadiqa, is a physician, with a keen eye for failing health. When she noticed the extent of my symptoms during a post-Christmas vacation, she scheduled a doctor’s appointment for as soon as we were home. And let’s just say it would have ended our marriage if I had not gone.

In January I went in for a colonoscopy and body scans. I found out the worst: I had colon cancer. Stage IV. According to the American Cancer Society, only 14 percent of people receiving that diagnosis are likely to be alive five years later. I was 35 years old.

In two respects, my diagnosis fit larger patterns. Colon cancer is increasingly afflicting young people, with millennials twice as likely to develop the disease as those born in 1950. And African Americans are now 40 percent more likely to die from the disease than other racial groups. There are many possible causes for that disparity, chief among them that African Americans tend to have lower incomes, live in more polluted neighborhoods, and have less access to preventative care, early detection, and high-quality treatment than White Americans.

Many people diagnosed with cancer ask themselves, “Why me?” I asked another question: “Why did I do this to myself?” I felt, in those days, a kind of angelic glow radiating from Sadiqa, who had likely saved my life. At the same time, I started to resent myself for ignoring the disease’s early warning signs, which likely allowed the cancer to spread out of my colon. I raged at myself for acting like I was immortal, for letting my veganism and regular exercise mask the fact that I had never really taken my health—or my life—very seriously.

When I started chemotherapy, at the end of January in 2018, I wasn’t yet conscious of all this self-loathing. But looking back now, I suspect this might be why I kept the ordeal to myself. I was fighting for my life, but I did not share that fact publicly, and I didn’t so much as whimper to my caretakers. As I proceeded through the cycles of chemo, the side effects compounded: the fatigue, the nausea, the toxicity on my tongue, the darkening and drying and blistering of the palms of my hands and soles of my feet. And all the neuropathy in the dead of winter: the pain of breathing in cold air, swallowing cold liquids, or touching anything cold. But I refused to let my oncologist reduce the dosage. I wanted, if anything, more chemo, more pain. But Sadiqa vetoed my requests.

I think my insistence on enduring the increasing pain had something to do with what I perceived as manly strength. And with my inclination to push through adversity for a greater good. My work is rooted in struggle. I combat the societal adversity that is racism—and personal adversity of being framed as the problem for fighting racism. Fighting cancer, it seemed, would be like fighting racism; the healing would require pain.

But there was more to my cancer battle. I realize now that I was also seeking punishment. I had deluded myself when the warning sirens were wailing. No more. It was time for me to suffer for allowing my body to suffer.

And then, after six months of effective chemotherapy, I looked forward to surgery. Not just because the procedure could rid my body of the remaining cancer. I also wanted the scars from the surgery—unmistakable, ugly, unchangeable—all over my chest. If it all sounds hyperbolic, then it’s because my self-loathing was hyperbolic. I wanted the surgical scars to function as humiliating symbols of my punishment. They would be my own personal scarlet letters. I would hide them from the world, but I would never be able to hide them from myself, these permanent reminders of my folly.

Over time, though, I reflected on the absurdity of blaming myself. After all, it wasn’t as though I had the typical risk factors for colon cancer. I was not over 50, I had no history of polyps or colorectal cancer, had no inflammatory intestinal conditions, no family history of colon cancer, did not eat a low-fiber, high-fat diet, was not sedentary, did not have diabetes, was not obese, did not smoke, did not drink heavily, had not had radiation therapy. My only risk factor for colon cancer was being African American.

The problem was not my ignorance. Americans are systematically made ignorant about cancer through systemic neglect. We should have a well-funded public health system—and an informative media culture—that methodically instructs us on the symptoms for different types of cancers in the way we are being instructed now on the symptoms for COVID-19. After all, cancer is the second leading cause of death after heart disease in the United States. More people died from cancer in 2020 than COVID-19.

How do we ensure that every single middle-aged man and woman knows the symptoms for colon cancer? A persistent change in bowel habits, an inability to empty your bowels, rectal bleeding, persistent abdominal discomfort, fatigue, unexplained weight loss. And after the pandemic ends, how can disease remain on our radar as the greatest threat to our national health and security? Diseases like cancer—along with unintentional injuries and suicides—comprise the leading causes of death in the United States. Not homicides and armed robberies. Not attacks from foreign or domestic terrorists.

As I processed what had happened to my body, I began to forgive myself. And as my scars healed, I started looking at them differently. I stopped seeing them as the tracks of my shame. I stopped insisting on covering them up.

But it took some time. We’re taught, particularly as men, to hide our emotions, our fears, our inner thoughts. We’re effectively taught to hide our scars. We’re taught that this hiding is masculine, when, in fact, it’s easy to hide. Cowardice hides. What takes courage is to be vulnerable, to bare our scars to the world.

I think about Sadiqa, who went under the knife to have her breast cancer removed in 2014. And about her Aunt Delores, who once, when Sadiqa was a little girl, showed her niece the scars on her own chest. “You don’t have to be afraid of them,” she said. Aunt Delores would eventually die of breast cancer, but the memory of those healing words would always offer solace to Sadiqa.

What courageous women. But what about men? We have scars too. There are countless men walking around with surgical scars like mine, ashamed of them as I was, hiding them as I was, willing to reveal them—as I was not.

Perhaps Chadwick Boseman’s heartrending death from colon cancer on August 28, 2020—exactly two years after my surgery—pushed me over the edge. Soon, my survivor’s guilt evolved into a survivor’s courage and a willingness to be vulnerable.

I decided to publicly reveal my scars. Other men, I soon realized, were ready and willing to do the same. Alongside these six patients and survivors—men who have undergone treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Medical Center—I’m telling my story not only to raise awareness for colon cancer, but also to encourage other men to amass the courage to fight on, to end any self-loathing, to be vulnerable. We should see our scars as monuments to our cancer fights, as the most memorable tattoos on our bodies, as second birth marks. And we should never hide them.

We remain when, heartbreakingly, so many do not. We remain to tell their stories and our own stories through our scars. I love that Sadiqa and my four-year-old daughter, Imani, can see my scars. Because that means I’m alive to see them, too.

Ibram X. Kendi is the director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and the best-selling author of ‘How to Be an Antiracist.’


Carlos Vega

Age: 46

Diagnosis: stage IV colorectal cancer

Current status: undergoing treatment

After undergoing surgery, Vega was left with scars on his belly—and a colostomy bag. He still works as an administrative police detective.

I’m an administrative detective for the Chelsea Police Department. I try to last an eight-hour shift each day. Once that’s done, I come home and try to relax. A full day’s work puts a strain on my body.

In March 2016, I did five days of radiation, then took a week’s break before I had my colorectal-removal procedure. They had to remove my sphincter muscle—that’s why I have a colostomy bag. I had to get used to using it and making sure that certain foods didn’t give me bowel obstructions, which are pretty bad. If you try to eat corn, you’ll have to go to the E.R.

They say radiation sometimes does more damage than good, and in my case, it did some damage. In February 2019, I had surgery to reconstruct my stomach—I couldn’t hold down any food. Now I have a good six-inch scar going down my stomach. And they had to re-section a piece of my intestines. That’s all because of the radiation and the cancer.

We tend to go every day in our lives working, taking care of our family, always on the run, until you experience something like this and you’ve got to change your whole life. My scars remind me of life’s uncertainties. If we don’t experience them, we don’t really get put to the test.

As told to Mik Awake


Jonathan Owens

Age: 58

Diagnosis: stage IV metastatic colorectal cancer

Current status: undergoing treatment

Having struggled with depression, Owens sees the need for recently diagnosed patients to undergo mental health therapy.

On Valentine’s Day 2014, my wife, Nicole, came to give me a hug. That’s when she noticed that I had lumps in my neck. I’d been complaining of a little nausea and a little pain in the middle of my stomach that day, and we were thinking it was like a cold or heartburn or something like that.

As the night went on, I was in bed staring at the ceiling and the stomach pain got harder and became more and more aggressive. I sat up in a chair, but it kept getting worse. I’m a guy who goes to the doctor regularly. I’ve had the same primary care physician for 23 years. I knew something was going on. I looked at my wife and said, “We need to go to the hospital.” And with that, we got dressed. But the pain kept coming harder and harder. By the time I got to the hospital, I couldn’t stand up.

So they put me in a wheelchair and brought me into a room for a scan. That’s when they determined I had lymphoma. A few days after that, I went and did another scan and they discovered it was colon cancer. I stayed on chemo for a year. The following March, I had an operation to remove the tumor. Three months later, the cancers came back, so I had to go back on chemo. Now I do three months on, three months off.

In the beginning, I didn’t take the diagnosis well. I was scared. For three months, I was in a heavy state of depression, saying to myself, “Why me, God?” I was so lost. I wish there had been some therapy in the beginning. I needed someone to talk to. Someone telling me I was going to be all right.

I had just graduated from welding school. Throughout my life, I’ve worked a lot of labor jobs: shipyards, hospitals. The Jonathan before was always trying to find a job, trying to make some money to take care of my family. But now I can’t do as many things as I used to do. I miss that: trying to provide a bit more for them. That’s about the hardest part about living with cancer.

In the beginning, I didn’t like the scars, but they grew on me. They healed well. I think of them as battle scars, or tattoos. They’ve become an everyday thing. An ordinary part of who I am. For the rest of my life, I’m a survivor.

It can be a really painful experience, but you need support. It takes a lot of support. My wife, Nicole, I don’t think I could have done it without her. I would’ve given up, honestly. It was that hard. I talk to my wife, pray to God, keep my spirits up, talk to my relatives. And I’m mentally changed for the better. I certainly don’t want to die.

I’m currently on a break. I went to the doctor today and he told me that my cancer is not really growing. The medicine is working. I’m getting better. I get to go on with my life.

As told to M.A.


Paul Rawate

Age: 45

Diagnosis: stage IV colorectal cancer

Current status: undergoing treatment

Rawate sees his scars as badges of honor and external reminders to keep fighting the disease.

The tumor in my intestine was so bad, they couldn’t even finish the colonoscopy. To reduce the mass, they were talking about putting in a stent, just to make sure I could have my normal flow. But there was a specific cocktail treatment that I responded really well to. The mass in my colon was reduced enough that they could go in and take it out.

I don’t have a lot of scarring from the points my surgeon accessed, because he did such a great job. And I didn’t have any issues internally at first. I did so well after the surgery to remove the mass in my colon, I got up and I walked out of the hospital. A week later, I almost had to be brought back in an ambulance because of a serious blood-clotting issue.

I have this port in me. It’s how I’m able to get treatment. It’s also how they do all the blood tests. I love having it, even though it was a gnarly surgery to get it into my body.

The big thing about the scars is that I have them as external reminders. The scar you can’t see is the blood clotting from the surgery that we’re still monitoring. So there is that internal reminder as well. They’re my motivation to continue with the areas in my life that matter most to me right now: being there for my eight-year-old, being a good husband, trying to do something for the community that’s sharing this struggle. And I need those reminders to keep pushing. For me, those external and internal reminders are all tied together. I think of them as badges of honor.

As told to M.A.


Carl-Henry Desravines

Age: 56

Diagnosis: stage IV rectal cancer

Current status: cancer-free

Desravines says his Catholic faith helped him persevere.

The day that led to my diagnosis, I was upset about being at the doctor. My wife, Myriam, is a nurse, and she had to come with me to make sure I kept the appointment. I remember the doctor said, “You are a boring patient.” Because I was always healthy. “Doctor,” my wife said, “the guy is 50. Why don’t you at least do a prostate test and colonoscopy?” So he did the prostate exam that day; then he sent me to another part of the hospital to make an appointment for the colonoscopy. It took four months.

I was at work when someone called me. I could tell she was trying to talk around it. She told me it was stage IV rectal cancer. It was in my lymph nodes. I was lucky. For six months I did chemo by IV. Then came the major surgery to remove the tumor. Afterward I couldn’t go to work for three months, which was a problem for me. I’m a hardworking person—I got that from my mother, who raised nine of us in Haiti while my father was in the army. She’s my model. My oncologist liked that I stayed positive. My body was sick, but mentally I was not. Through the whole treatment, I was never down.

That was four years ago. Now I’m cancer-free, by God’s grace. To tell you the truth, I don’t even think about it anymore, but the scars remind me that I was sick. They’re a part of me, a sign that I’m victorious. I’m still alive, watching my daughter grow up, spending time with Myriam. I’m a very religious guy—I grew up going to Catholic school. When I’m talking about staying positive, I’m talking about my religion. There are things that are not going to attack my spirit.

As told to M.A.


Jed Duggan

Age: 30

Diagnosis: stage IV colon cancer and stage I thyroid cancer

Current status: cancer-free

After a successful treatment, Duggan got a tattoo with the words “Never be ashamed of your scars” and a ribbon that commemorates all who have died of cancer or are still fighting the disease.

I had all the symptoms of colon cancer—the bloody stool, the weight loss, the night sweats. I just refused to go to the doctor, because I didn’t want to believe it. One day, after I’d just gotten out of the shower, I had to sit down to catch my breath after walking maybe 20 steps. And I remember my dad looking at me and saying, “Look, we’ve got to figure out what’s wrong with you.”

At the hospital they found an oversized polyp in me, which they thought was causing everything. I had surgery on July 11, 2016, and I woke up Tuesday morning on July 12 to find out I had stage III colon cancer. [Editor’s note: It would later progress to stage IV.] Twenty-five years old, you’re not expecting to hear that you have colon cancer, or any type of cancer. So when I heard that, I was in shock for a good half a day. My dad stayed with me the entire day. Eventually, I wrapped my head around it and said, “All right, recovery starts today. The fight starts today. Let’s go.”

After six months of chemo and then surgery for colon cancer, they found out that I also had thyroid cancer. I was diagnosed with MAP syndrome, a genetic mutation passed down from each parent. They’ve seen situations like mine, where you get colon cancer and you get another cancer, but they’ve also seen situations like my older sister’s, where she’s had no issues so far.

We were sitting on the hospital bed, me and my dad. And we were like, “We need to do something once we beat this.” So I got this tattoo: “Never be ashamed of your scars.” The ribbon’s the memory of everyone who’s lost their battle with cancer or is fighting cancer every day. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I’ve been clean for four years. You see people every day who are diagnosed and then a couple months later they’re gone. When I was going through it, that was in the back of my mind. Not everyone gets to beat cancer, so the scars are something to be proud of. I’m able to keep telling my story.

As told to M.A.


Kyle Vinson

Age: 39

Diagnosis: stage IV colon cancer

Current status: undergoing treatment

After undergoing four surgeries, including one that resulted in life-threatening internal bleeding, Vinson is making good progress, according to his doctor.

I started having pain in my shoulder, so I went to an urgent care, and they said I had a SLAP tear in my shoulder. But my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, she’s a nurse. And she said, “That doesn’t make any sense—you don’t have a SLAP tear.” About five weeks later, I was having a lot of pain, so I went back to the urgent care, and then they ran a bunch of tests and sent me to the hospital. That’s when they took the CT scan and suggested I get a biopsy. I went home for the weekend, and then I came back to the office—I believe it was on a Tuesday, February 4, 2020. That’s when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. And it had spread to the liver.

I’ve been cut open a bunch of times, and there’s evidence of that. There were complications from my first procedure that resulted in life-threatening internal bleeding and three more surgeries. They actually put coils in. I have four scars total. The ones on my left side are pretty long, basically the size of my whole abdomen.

At first, they pissed me off. You see them and you just get upset. When you’re younger and more ignorant, you may see people like me and find their defects kinda gross. I have scars like that now, and I’m starting to embrace them. They symbolize what I’ve been through.

Prior to the diagnosis, I golfed a few times a week at the country club I belong to. I picked it up back in high school. In the wintertime, I was a skier, so I’d take a bus every weekend to New Hampshire or Vermont. I was very active, but I didn’t really think about my body beyond having a physical every few years.

I’ve been successful in life—I work as a software developer in the financial-services industry, and I’ve been with my company for over a decade. Any challenge that I’m facing, I usually figure out a way to solve it. So I feel like this is just another challenge. I think I’ve been doing a pretty decent job so far.

I’m not sure what the road ahead is, but I do know that the doctor says, for all I’ve been through, that I’m still on pace for where they thought I would be a year ago. I go to the doctor every six weeks for a CT scan. We’re seeing real progress: The cancer’s not gone, but it’s not spreading like wildflowers. And at the end of this, I’ll have a story I’ll be able to tell and hopefully it can help people who are going through this.

As told to M.A.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2021 issue with the title “Scar Stories.”

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