As a family doctor, Colin Cross sees patients “from cradle to grave, preferably with a good span in between.”
But two weeks ago, his colleagues handed him difficult news: At age 41, Cross’ own life span is much more uncertain than anyone had realized.
“It never dawned on me that I’d be unwell,” he said Sunday, sitting at his kitchen table, a bouquet of get-well balloons nearby.
On Oct. 13, the life of the popular Post Falls physician and his family changed forever.
The warning came in the form of twisting pain in Cross’ abdomen. His wife, Susie, insisted he go to the hospital.
Suspecting the pain was appendicitis, doctors ran a blood test. Instead, they found severe anemia - a lack of red blood cells.
“That’s always a bad combination in a young person,” Cross said. “It suggests gastrointestinal bleeding.”
His colleagues ran tests all the next morning. No, they told Cross, it wasn’t an ulcer. Nor an impacted bowel. Nor intestinal polyps.
They X-rayed his abdomen. This time, they didn’t bring over the test results. Instead, Cross was wheeled back to his hospital room.
There, two surgeons, their eyes glistening, told him that what they’d found inside his belly.
A cancerous tumor.
Within an hour, Cross was wheeled into an operating room, where surgeons removed nearly 2 feet of his small intestine. They took out lumps where the cancer had moved into his lymph glands.
That was two weeks ago. In a few days, Cross starts a year of chemotherapy to try to knock out any remaining cancer cells.
His doctors told him he has a 15 percent to 20 percent chance of surviving for five years. If he does, with no recurrence of the cancer, he would be considered cured.
Cross doesn’t like those odds but says he’s optimistic he can beat the disease.
“There’s no way I can change the fact that they took out an advanced-stage tumor, that I’m 41 years old and that it’s not fair,” he said. “I can’t change that.”
He and his wife sat their three young children down and told them the news. Susie Cross explained the odds: If there were five people with the disease, one would survive.
“They all said, ‘That’s going to be Dad,”’ Susie Cross said Sunday, smiling. “They’re hopeful.”
Cross hopes to go back to work, part time, in six weeks. Doctors will check for cancer with CT scans.
The thought of those tests makes him nervous.
“It’s kind of like lying under the guillotine, and the guy’s going to pull the string, and maybe the blade will fall - or not.”
Despite the stress, he said, he has learned a few things since Oct. 13.
For one, he said, it was enlightening for the doctor to be a patient. He appreciated nurses’ tenderness.
“The little things count a lot more than I thought,” he said. “Like holding hands, touching, saying ‘I’m sorry.”’
Also, Cross discovered how much his colleagues and patients care about him. A dozen physicians are volunteering to see his patients.
Other friends have brought meals, cleaned the house and set up a fund to cover Cross’ office costs. Six to eight get-well cards roll in each day from friends - and patients.
“They’re more concerned about me than about what would happen to their medical care,” said Cross. “We’re just so overwhelmed. It’s like the small town that everyone is grieving for is alive and well.”
Lastly, Cross says, he has realized he can’t give up. Because laughter boosts the immune system, he’s reading comics and watching Monty Python tapes. His wife says he’s now more likely to sit and watch the sunsets over the Spokane River.
“You just make sure you make the most out of every day,” said Cross, “which we should all be doing anyway.”
He said he wants to get back to work as soon as he can. He likes the feeling of helping people, he said.
While Cross was in the hospital, a man with chest pains was in a room three doors down. The man’s pains worsened; then his heart apparently stopped. The hospital intercom summoned doctors to the man’s room.
Overhearing the emergency, Cross jumped out of bed and ran down the hall, his backless hospital gown fluttering behind him.
“I just figured that if I had to lean over and do CPR, my tush would be the least of their worries.”
The man was OK. Cross greeted the doctors before leaving.
“They were a little surprised to see me dressed in a gown,” he said.
In the last two weeks, Cross said, he has come to terms with the way his life changed Oct. 13.
“There’s nothing I can do,” he said, “except play the hand.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo
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