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Colon Cancer Builds a Character

Article date: November 18, 2005

SoH Builds Character

You feel an instant kinship on the Cancer Survivors Network. 'Gosh, you don't have any hair or eyebrows either? We're in the same club!'

 

Strike up a conversation with Lt. Robert Hendrickson, US Coast Guard, and he's likely to shoot back a joke or two. He has a quick wit that's greatly appreciated at the Cancer Survivors Network (CSN) Web site, where he's an old-timer on the colon cancer discussion board. Today, he inspires hope and cracks jokes with "newbies" and old friends alike who log onto CSN for support from others affected by cancer.

When Hendrickson first discovered CSN, however, he had very little humor or support in his own life. His diagnosis with colon cancer at age 37 had started him on a wrenching physical and emotional journey.

Please, Sir, May I Have a Colonoscopy?

Well before the news of his own colon cancer, however, Hendrickson's mother was diagnosed with the disease, as had been her father before her. Concerned by the family history, the career officer—then 33 years old—went to the base clinic to schedule a screening colonoscopy (an exam of the colon). They told him he was too young.

"Never let them tell you you're too young!" he writes on his homepage at CSN. "Lesson learned."

About a year later, his own health problems appeared. Hendrickson began feeling unusually tired. His bathroom habits changed. He gained weight—could it be due to a new cholesterol drug? He had heart palpitations, but tests didn't turn up a specific heart problem. He developed a cough and by July 2001, "I couldn't walk across the room without getting out of breath," said Hendrickson.

Finally, a blood test found significant anemia (low red blood cell levels), which probably accounted for his heart symptoms and shortness of breath, and Hendrickson was quickly moved to the Bethesda Naval Hospital, where in August 2001, a colonoscopy uncovered stage II colon cancer. Hendrickson tells his story now with a keen eye for the odd or funny aspects of what was a devastating experience at the time. He notes with a chuckle that he did get a first-rate colon exam: "The same doctor who did my colonoscopy did the President's!"

Surgery quickly followed and the medical team had to remove about two-thirds of Hendrickson’s colon. The first words he remembers after waking up in the recovery room were hardly reassuring. "Pray with me" said the nurse on duty, taking her patient's hand.

"This can't be good," ran through Hendrickson's mind.

Later, testing found that he carries the gene for hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer, which explains his family's history of the disease and which may make him vulnerable to further battles with cancer.

Freefalling

The Lieutenant's home life took a difficult turn at that time, too—his wife filed for a divorce. Hendrickson compares those dark days to the rapid, perilous freefall of a skydiver, the time before the parachute opens.

With his wife and children remaining near Williamsburg, Virginia, Hendrickson took an apartment near the hospital in Bethesda, Maryland and hunkered down for six months of chemotherapy. He signed the lease on September 11 ("the September 11," he explained) and found himself battling cancer with no close family nearby.

Was he frightened or lonely?

"It was tough," he said. "Fortunately I found the Cancer Survivors Network and they took over for my family and friends. Just the day-to-day support and genuine friendship and love that exudes from people at the Survivors Network was very helpful."

Through CSN he discovered others who were hit by cancer and marital problems at the same time. He also found the physical details were easier to share in the anonymity of an Internet bulletin board. "There's no modesty with colon cancer," he added.

Hendrickson and his friends from the colon cancer discussion board at CSN have become a remarkable, ongoing, and colorful support group, who call themselves the "Semi-Colons." And in 2005, they began semi-annual getaways nicknamed "Colonpalooza." (At left: a Las Vegas sphinx, Kay Norton, Hendrickson, and Stacy Gleason.)

A Warm, Squishy Character Is Born

Hendrickson's screen name on CSN is SpongeBob—like the absorbent, bright yellow, happy-go-lucky cartoon character. "He fits his name well," said CSN member mikew42. "He brings a lot of humor to the site and he's very tactful, too."

Hendrickson believes that colon cancer has changed his character—and for the better, bringing him a little closer to the soft, squishy qualities of TV's SpongeBob.

"I was what's commonly referred to as 'anal retentive,' he admitted. "I kept my emotions in check. As a military officer, I felt I had to."

Today, Hendrickson strives to share his emotions, to be more open, and to do whatever he can to support other people who are facing colon cancer. "When you have a disease that kills half of the people it affects, you do a lot of self-examination," he said.

For about three years now, Hendrickson has been what cancer survivors call "NED" (no evidence of disease), but he still participates in CSN's colon cancer discussion board as much as time allows.

"They're my good friends," he said. "They're my family. And I want to be there for people who are just starting the battle. I drew inspiration myself from people who were farther along."

Is he mad that doctors wouldn't give him a colonoscopy when he first asked? Not today's warm and squishy Lt. Hendrickson.

"I'm a little bit annoyed about that, but in retrospect, I can't be angry because it was ignorance," he said. "'Mea culpa' for not taking a more active role in my medical treatment. Life goes on; you take the lesson and move forward."

What does make SpongeBob mad?

"My surgeon came into my room to see how my scar was healing, and I asked, 'Is my career as a swimsuit model over?'" Hendrickson recalled.

"The doctor was quiet for a minute and then he said, 'I don't think you ever had a career as a swimsuit model.' Now that made me mad."

More of Lt. Robert Hendrickson's wit and wisdom can be found at SpongeBob's Pineapple House, his home page on the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network. Viewing homepages on this private, secure, non-commercial Web site is free but requires registration.

Hendrickson may also be seen striking a manly pose in his swim trunks in The 2006 Colondar, a calendar developed to raise money and awareness about colon cancer in younger people.