In Memory of Ellen

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of my sister-in-law. She was thirty-five, and left behind my brother, a 3 year old son and an 18 month old son. Her death was due to colon cancer, making her one of the few young people to die of this disease. You are not “too young” to have colon cancer.

About a year before her death, she had her last period. She took a pregnancy test, which came back negative; a week later, another negative pregnancy test — still no period. But she still didn’t see a doctor. Then she started losing weight. After having struggled all her life to lose weight, she was pleased to see it begin to drop off so effortlessly. So she still didn’t see a doctor. In April, she went to the doctor to see about the bowel problems she had been having recently. She had had difficulties with constipation most of her adult life, and they were getting worse. Although the concerns and complaints were classic symptoms of colon cancer, she was “too young” to have colon cancer, and the doctor did not order an immediate colonoscopy, but instead scheduled one for mid-June. In early June, she took the children to visit her parents (in Nebraska, about a 14-hour drive). While there, she noticed her abdomen was swelling, so went to her old family doctor. He tentatively diagnosed her with some sort of liver ailment — possibly liver cancer — and sent her for more tests. Within a few days, the diagnosis was positive for cancer in the liver, and before long, it was confirmed that it was colon cancer. Stage IV (four) — there is no “stage five”. (Of course, my brother drove up as soon as the initial diagnosis was made.)

The prognosis was 3-6 months without treatment, and as long as 24 months with chemotherapy. A family friend was also fighting breast cancer at the same time, and she had opted for chemotherapy, which gave her several more months of life, but took her dignity, her hair, and her health in the meantime. Ellen chose to try an alternative treatment for her cancer (going somewhere in Mexico), and seemed to get better for a few weeks. It was not to last.

I went down in late August for a visit (my first time to go home since getting married eighteen months before); it was also the time of her older son’s third birthday. Ellen was wasted; emaciated. She looked like a pregnant skeleton — the cancer was causing an accumulation of fluid in her abdomen. It was drawn off several times during the course of her living death; one time I remember they drained 5 quarts of fluid at once. I hugged her one time, and she felt as frail as a ninety-year-old woman — I can still feel her spine poking out of her skin. But she looked good compared to what she looked like at the end of her life. By the time the cancer killed her, she looked like she had not survived Auschwitz.

In addition to my brother and two children, she left behind mother, father, stepmother, sister and brother-in-law, two stepbrothers and sisters-in-law, a stepsister and brother-in-law, grandmother, and a whole host of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends.

5 Responses

  1. So sad. I’m in tears… Your family, especially her husband and kiddos are in my thoughts.

  2. Wow. The signs of this type of cancer at first seem to be something an overweight woman would celebrate. Ugh.

    I am so sorry for the loss you and your family experienced. Thank you for posting and giving warning to your readers.

  3. May her memory be eternal.
    This is such a loss for everyone, esp. the children. I am so sorry.

  4. Thank you for pointing out that colon cancer can happen to the young too. A daughter of a friend of our family died also of colon cancer in her mid-30s. It was very hard for everyone.

    What a heartbreaking loss for Ellen’s family, and especially for her children. I can’t imagine the worry that must have caused her, knowing she left her children behind without her. But at least those children have your family there to fill in the gap as much as it could ever be filled; so many motherless children don’t have that. I’m glad you are in the family to help.

    Thank you for remembering Ellen.

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