Making the Most of Every Day with Metastatic Colon Cancer

Beaton family
Chris Beaton and his family enjoy the sunshine in St. Thomas.

By Chris Beaton

The day after my 45th birthday, Jan. 6, 2013, serious abdominal pain brought me to the emergency room, where they found a mass in my colon. Within a week, I was diagnosed as stage IIIa colon cancer. I was on the road to recovery by summer, thanks to 12 treatments of chemotherapy with Dana-Farber’s Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, and Andrea Enzinger, MD, but my six-month follow up in January 2014 showed bad news: The cancer had spread to my liver.

My immediate thought was, “I’m going to die.” I stopped making plans for the future, and had some emotional ups and downs. Dr. Enzinger recommended anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications, which I fought. I can be a stubborn guy, and thought I could figure out how to cope on my own. Regular meetings with my social worker Bruce MacDonald, LICSW, and support group meetings at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center at Milford Regional Medical Center helped, and I slowly began to accept the reality of my situation more. Maybe my expiration date would be sooner, but we still didn’t know when that would be, so I had a responsibility to myself, my wife, and my two daughters to go on with my life.

Then we got more bad news in November 2014, when they found inoperable spots in my lungs, and I took Dr. Enzinger’s advice and started taking medication to help with my mood. Cancer can make you angry; that’s normal. I knew I didn’t want to take my anger out at work or on my family, and I wanted to make everybody’s lives, including my own, as pleasant as I could. The medication, support groups, and advice from Bruce, especially about how to talk to our daughters, who were 9 and 12 at the time of my second recurrence, helped immensely. I was also able to find support from a few other people around my age facing, unfortunately, similar circumstances. My girls also have friends who are going through similar situations, so they have someone to talk to about things they might not be comfortable saying to me and my wife.

In the beginning, we took the girls to Dana-Farber in Boston to show them that I’m not going to a place where people die; I’m going to a place where people live. That helped normalize the situation a bit, and now we laugh in the humor of the tragedy: If the kids want to give me a hard time, they’ll threaten to poke me in the port, and other times, I’ll use the port to gross them out. It’s not taboo to talk about.

Beaton family
Chris Beaton and his family join cartoon characters Phineas and Ferb at Disney World.

Thinking about my daughters and their futures has been one of the most difficult pieces of this experience. When I think about the milestones I’m likely going to miss – graduations, weddings, grandchildren – it’s a big challenge. Something simple like a song on the radio can make me flash forward to the years I’ll miss, but I’m determined to make the best out of the situation and spend as much time with them as possible.

Since my latest recurrence, my family and I have gone on trips to Tennessee, St. Thomas, Disney World, and soon, a cruise. These are things that a year or two ago I wouldn’t have done; I would have been sitting around wallowing in sorrow. But now, any chance we get to do something, we’re going to do it. The chemotherapy is doing its job, but no one knows long it’s going to work, so I’m going to live my life like it’s always going to work.

 

Dana-Farber’s Family Connections program provides resources and advice for parents with cancer. If you have cancer and are parenting school-aged children, like Chris, join the program and our Social Work division Saturday, Jan. 30, for a half-day event to learn strategies for coping with cancer as a family. To register for the program or learn more, speak with your social worker or contact Family Connections at 617-632-2605 or family_connections@dfci.harvard.edu.