Stories of Hope
Calm Survivor Weathers Treatment, Becomes a Fighter
Article date: September 5, 2002
Don't ever give up. There are survivors for every single type of cancer that's been diagnosed out there. You may be the next one.
Survivor Robert Schechner will take his experiences with cancer to Washington, D.C., Sept. 19 to urge Congress to make cancer a national priority.
It won't be the first time Schechner has spoken on behalf of cancer survivors. He was selected by his local ACS unit for his advocacy work to be a Relay Community Ambassador. Some 3,000 of these Ambassadors will participate in the first Relay For Life Celebration on the Hill. During this event, ACS ambassadors will meet with members of Congress, and then convene on the National Mall at the Capitol Reflecting Pool for a unique celebration.
Schechner has come a long way since he was first diagnosed with colon cancer. When his doctor called, he not only took the news lying down, he rolled over and went back to sleep.
"I think I was taking a nap when the doctor called," he said. "My wife and my children and my son-in-law, they were, as you might expect, very upset. My wife said, 'aren't you worried about this?' and I said, yes, I'm somewhat concerned, but I feel too well. And I am too well to be terribly sick."
Schechner, who lifts weights and runs regularly, was on the track team in high school, and started jogging in the 1970s when the craze began. At 50, he ran in the Atlantic City Marathon. "The truth of the matter is, when I was diagnosed with colon cancer, I was in the best physical shape of my adult life," he said.
Health Is The Only Thing Of Value
"I learned at an early age that the only thing of real value that you have is your health, and next to your health, that of the ones you love," Schechner said. "Beyond that there is very little in this life that has any value. I'm sure a lot of people come to that conclusion."
He had a regular physical exam every year, including a fecal occult blood test (FOBT). "Every single year — negative," he said. There was nothing in the FOBT that year, either. But his doctor pointed out that he was "way over 50" and ought to have a sigmoidoscopy, at least. "Sign me up," said Schechner.
Getting The Full Monty
The test revealed only one growth, but it was "a hot potato," he said. "After the sig, they did the full monty, as I call it."
Doctors reassured Schechner that his cancer had been caught early enough that surgery would be the only treatment he would need. About 12 to 18 inches of his colon was removed.
"Quite frankly, the surgery was a little more than I had counted on," he said, recalling the below-breastbone to below-navel incision. "It adds a little character to your tummy. My belly dancing days are over, though."
In a post-operative visit, the surgeon told Schechner that looking at the growth and where it was located, "by the time you felt badly, by the time blood showed up in your stool, you would’ve been a lot worse off." Schechner returned to the doctor who found the cancer and gave him a hug. "He said 'I'll forego the kiss,'" Schechner recounted.
He told his doctor, "I really think you saved my life." Schechner said he's "just about the perfect example" of why early detection is so important. Healthy all his life, he had no family history of colon cancer, and he ate right and exercised. "If I could get this disease, then anybody could get it." He said while early detection saves lives, in his case it saved him "a lot more trouble — I had no chemotherapy, no radiation. I feel that [my treatment] was sort of a walk in the park, compared to lots of folks'."
Setting The Perfect Example — For The Entire State
The experience convinced him that he could tell others about the importance of screening. He's testified three times before two congressional committees. "I explained to them that a colonoscopy is a lot less expensive than the kind of surgery I had —the hospital bill alone was over $20,000. You can do a fair number of colonoscopies for $20,000, I think."
Schechner's testimonials were instrumental in getting the "colorectal bill" passed. The governor of New Jersey signed a bill effective July 1 of this year requiring all health insurers to cover colonoscopy for all people over 50. "In New Jersey, there's no excuse not to get screened," he said.
In addition to his advocacy work, Schechner is involved with an American Cancer Society program called Road to Recovery. In this program, he and other volunteers drive cancer patients to radiation, chemotherapy, and doctor appointments. He's gotten to know some of his passengers. "Some of these people are seriously ill. And to watch the courage with which they come out of the house and go to these treatments — I'm amazed at how brave and how courageous a lot of these folks are." They've taught him something. "Don’t ever give up," he said. "There are survivors for every single type of cancer that's been diagnosed out there," he said. "You may be the next one.