“Dr. Vainio, you don’t know me, but I watch you on Native Report. I know you’ve talked about cancer and colon cancer in particular, but I need to tell you that you have to keep saying it.”
I’d been working on a 1987 Honda Accord I dug out of a snow bank a couple weeks earlier. How I ended up with the car is a fairly long and overall beautiful story and it was finally time to start driving it. I had picked up a transmission from a junkyard the winter before and I always meant to put it into the car, but somehow time got away from me. A good friend of mine works on cars in his garage and he was able to do in a week what I wasn’t able to do in three years. I was rustproofing the car with some spray rustproofing and a three foot plastic wand I got on eBay and about half of the rustproofing was on the car and the other half was on me.
I was covered in grease when he came up to me and my hair was knotted with leaves and dirt from working on the car. I was surprised he even recognized me as a doctor. His wife was with him and both had the look of heavy smokers. She had a tired and almost haunted look and she let him do most of the talking.
“My mother died from colon cancer when she was 43 and my brother had colon cancer in his mid-40d,” he said. “I saw ‘Walking into the Unknown’ seven or eight years ago and I knew I should have gone in for a colonoscopy then. I didn’t go because I didn’t want to quit smoking and I knew if I started trying to avoid cancer, it was going to lead to a whole bunch of things I didn’t want to do.”
We were standing in line at a store that sold tools and hardware. I was carrying windshield wiper blades and tail light bulbs and his cart was holding a roll of pink fiberglass insulation, caulking supplies, two cans of paint and some brushes.
“I was getting some pains in my belly off and on and a couple of times I had a little bit of blood in my stool. I didn’t tell my wife about it because she makes a big deal out of everything and the bleeding stopped after a week or so.” She was looking at him with a little bit of a scowl, but was otherwise expressionless.
The line moved forward.
“I started sweating at night. At first it was just a little bit and I blamed it on the weather. The sweating got worse and I didn’t say anything. Then I started losing weight. I tried to eat more so she wouldn’t worry, but nothing tasted good. The blood in my stools came back off and on and I knew I made a mistake by not going in to see my doctor.”
His wife looked at him. “And did you go in to see him?”
“No,” he said. “Even with my family history, I didn’t want to believe I could get cancer. I thought about quitting smoking and I remembered when I tried to quit about 10 years earlier. I was so crabby we almost got divorced.”
The line inched forward and he looked down and steadied the roll of insulation in his cart, even though it was in no danger of falling over. He picked up one of the cans of paint and moved it toward the front of the cart. He didn’t look up as he started talking again.
“I thought maybe if I ignored it, everything would get better, like a bad cold or a bad dream. I’ve always worked and supported my family. I built our house the year we got married. I put two of our sons through tech school and they both have good jobs. I didn’t owe anyone anything and I didn’t want to start depending on people.”
The line moved forward again and he had to look up to move his cart. His eyes were misty as he looked into mine.
“I thought about what you said in that movie. You remember, that we do these things for the people we love. Even that was hard for me to think about, because I don’t use the word love very often. My father raised me tough and he would have seen that as being soft.”
The line moved forward again and I was at the checkout counter. The cashier put the bulbs and the wiper blades into a bag and gave me my receipt. I moved out of the way and he started unloading his cart. He lifted the first can of paint onto the counter and he started talking again.
“This insulation and caulking are for my daughter’s house. She left home when she was 17 and she was never coming back. She has a daughter who’s just going into the fourth grade. When I found out I had cancer, I called my daughter and I asked her to forgive me and she did. I have so much to make up for and I want her and my granddaughter to have a warm house. I want them to remember I’m the one who gave that to them.”
The cashier wasn’t trying to hide her interest in the conversation and the cans of paint and the brushes sat on the counter as she waited for him to go on.
“I could have avoided all of this.”
He patted his shirt and I could hear the crinkly plastic of a colostomy bag.
“This bag I can live with and I was able to quit smoking cold turkey and my wife is trying hard to quit.”
He took off his hat and he was almost completely bald with just a few delicate white hairs remaining.
“The chemo is the worst part. The first cycle wasn’t so bad and I thought I was going to be OK. The second one made me so sick I wasn’t sure I wanted to go for any more, but I have a granddaughter and she wants me in her life. I don’t know what the future holds for me and I’ll get scans to see where things are as we go along.”
The cashier rang up his items and I walked with them into the parking lot. I opened the door to my 30-year-old Honda and he smiled.
“Pretty fancy car, Dr. Vainio.”
“There’s a story behind it.” I said.
“I don’t doubt that a bit. Don’t forget what I told you. You need to keep talking about cancer and keep telling people to get screened. A colonoscopy five years earlier would have made all the difference for me and I don’t want to see this happen to anyone else. They’ll listen if you keep telling them.”
I started my car and he pushed the cart toward his truck, then he stopped and came back. I rolled the window down and he said. “We’re a lot the same, aren’t we? We’ve both learned it’s never too late to save things.”
He patted my car gently on the roof and smiled.
“Good luck with your project.”
I reached out the window and we shook hands.
“Good luck with yours.”
Arne Vainio, M.D. is an enrolled member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and is a family practice physician on the Fond du Lac reservation in Cloquet, Minnesota. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column is a regular feature in Indian Country News (www.indiancountrynews.com)