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Let My Heartache Be Your Wake-Up Call

“I miss his hands. He had these really strong, loving hands that always made me feel safe. When I see others with similar hands, I always think of my dad,” reflects Jenny Chavez, who lost her dad, Joe, to colon cancer four years ago. “He really should still be here. We still need him,” adds Jenny, who regrets that they were not more aware of this kind of cancer and how easy it is to prevent.

Joe was the loving patriarch of a family that included six kids and a plethora of grandchildren as well as stepchildren and step grandchildren. He babysat his grandchildren and surprised them with mini-adventures. Jenny’s son, Cameron, was always close to his grandfather’s side. “Dad called Cameron his little sidekick,” recalls Jenny, pointing out her dad’s enthusiasm for family road trips and adventures hiking or riding snowmobiles or four-wheelers. “He embraced life and loved his life,” says Jenny. “He worked hard and played hard always including his family.”

Despite Joe’s enthusiasm for life, he was stubborn about going to doctors. “He was a tough guy and always had the attitude of ‘I’m fine, I can handle this,’” admits Jenny. She attributes some of his hesitancy to seeking out medical care to being self-employed and scarce health insurance options. Joe was an electrical contractor. It was only when Jenny found him at home, feverish and sick and barely being able to walk, that she got him to the hospital. He was diagnosed with diverticulitis and an infection had formed; when the doctors went to drain the abscess they found a tumor. He had Stage 4 colon cancer and passed away four years later at 60.

“If he had gone in for a colonoscopy at 50, which would have been six years prior to the diagnosis, I honestly believe that it would have saved his life or at least caught the cancer earlier allowing for a better prognosis.” Jenny laments that she knew so little about the importance of colon cancer screenings yet was well-educated and diligent regarding screenings for breast cancer. No one in her family had ever had colon cancer before.

“I would have really pressed my dad to get screened if I had been more educated,” says Jenny, who now reminds her brothers regularly to get screened as they approach 40 (the age appropriated to those with a family history). She herself has had three colonoscopies as a result of other conditions. “It’s so easy, especially considering the alternative. Watching my dad die was painful.” Jenny talks openly now with her children and other family members about the screenings and being more educated about the risks of colon cancer in their family. “My kids know as they get older that this is just something we do—it is part of the routine of how we take care of ourselves,” explains Jenny.

When Jenny misses her father—especially on his birthday or Father’s Day—she visits his grave or re-visits memories or meditates to be with him again. Grateful for what he modeled, Jenny has learned to live life in a similar way. Joe was a fair and honest man who put a high value on integrity and put 100% into everything. Jenny adds, “he showed up unconditionally for others; always available as a support system for others.”

“Taking care of yourself is not only about you; it is about everyone that surrounds you,” stresses Jenny. “If you were to be gone, how is that going to affect the people that love you?”

Let My Heartache be Your Wake-up Call is part of a Centers for Disease Control Campaign to build awareness about the importance of colon cancer screenings.