Colon Cancer Is Occurring at Younger Ages
Chadwick Boseman’s recent passing at the age of 43 from colon cancer focused attention on the growing trend of colon cancer occurring in ages younger than the expected elderly. In the past, the American Cancer Society had recommended that people with average risk be screened for colon cancer beginning at age 50. With the rising number of individuals in their early 40s succumbing to colon cancer, the new recommendation is now for screening to begin at age 45.
Another younger cancer victim is Sonya Zuker, my daughter, who contracted colon cancer at the age of 42. Today she is a cancer survivor. She is also the featured person in a profile of her and her family on the website of the Colon Cancer Coalition (CCC). When you read “Sonya’s Story” in her own words on the CCC website https://coloncancercoalition.org/, you will see photographs of Sonya and her wonderful children (our grandchildren) Mitchell and Emma. We are so proud of what they have achieved.
Get to know Sonya
As you will see, Sonya’s story is one of rescue at age 3 from war-torn Vietnam to her adulthood. Her story takes a dramatic turn with her diagnosis of cancer in 2014, which called upon all her resources of family and friends and her courage and indefatigable optimism. The hard-won challenges glossed over on the CCC website are described in more detail in the ebook excerpt discussed below.
Sonya’s cancer story is part of my cancer story. Sonya and I received cancer diagnoses within a few months of one another. The remarkable father/daughter coincidence was one factor that struck us. What follows is the section from my Cancer memoir Grace with Meals published on Amazon as a Kindle eBook in 2019 titled “Sonya’s Story” in my words. The hard-won challenges glossed over on the CCC website are described in more detail in the ebook excerpt.
Book Excerpt from Grace with Meals
Chapter 12: Family and Friends
Every life is replete with happiness, sadness, success, and failure. There are also, occasionally, the coincidences that seem so striking that they appear to be enabled by a powerful force unknown to us. This happened in the course of my cancer diagnosis and treatment.
My oldest daughter Sonya, who was adopted during my first marriage in 1975 at the age of three from Vietnam, was diagnosed with colon cancer about three months after I was diagnosed with mine.
This coincidence was made more implausible by the fact that colon cancers usually affect older people. Sonya has always been a fit person and did not seem to be a good candidate for cancer.
One thing we do not know was any presence of cancer in her biological family. She had been left at the orphanage when she was an infant, and we had no knowledge of her parents. We knew that her biological father was Caucasian and her mother was probably Vietnamese.
My first wife and I decided to adopt after it became clear that we could not have biological children of our own. We decided that we would try to adopt a mixed-race, female child from Vietnam knowing the difficulties faced by those children, especially the girls.
In many cases, we learned, a mixed-blood, female baby in Vietnam would simply be put outdoors to die. This probably most often happened in the jungle villages where another female child was not seen as a valuable working member of the family but simply another drain on scarce resources. Female, mixed-blood children born in the cities could easily find themselves sold into the sex-for-hire underworld.
We had assistance with this effort from a wealthy Vietnamese family that I met through my work at Duke University. Once they heard of our desire to adopt one of these children, they offered to help us work through the byzantine adoptions system in place at that time in war- torn Vietnam. Matters were made more complex and urgent because by the time we decided to try to do this, the future existence of the corrupt regime that we had supported in Saigon had no chance to survive against the North Vietnamese once we had pulled out of the country. Our friends in Vietnam found three little girls in an orphanage in Saigon managed by Buddhist and Catholic nuns that were the right age, around two or three years, that we hoped to adopt. I remember the three pictures vividly. Only one of the little girls appeared to be mixed-race, Asian and Caucasian. We chose her and sent word back to Saigon to proceed with all possible haste to get the paperwork required at the US Embassy.
By this time in 1975, the situation in Saigon was chaotic. The Vietnamese who had worked with the American Armed Forces were trying desperately to escape Saigon before the North Vietnamese Army captured the city. The South Vietnamese forces were in full retreat. Some were even leaving their uniforms and weapons in the street and melting into the city to avoid capture as a prisoner of war.
We learned from our friends that there were difficulties with Sonya’s (We had already decided on her name.) paperwork, and they were unable to get her visa for entry into the US.
We were frantic because we knew the noose around the neck of Saigon was tightening, and it was only a matter of days or hours before the city fell.
You may remember the heartbreaking pictures of the helicopters on the roof of the US Embassy and the GIs fighting off the desperate Vietnamese trying to force their way into the choppers. It was a waking nightmare for us knowing that our little girl was caught in this disaster. We thought there was little chance she would be able to get out.
Then there was the disaster of the Operation Babylift flight which crashed shortly after takeoff with many Vietnamese children on board being evacuated to adoptive homes. Seventy-eight children on that flight were killed along with fifty adults. We had no idea if she was on that flight (Martin & NPR Staff, 2015).
We had no word from our friends during those final days of the American withdrawal from Saigon. The city fell on April 30, 1975. A few days after the fall, some of the family of our friends in Vietnam who were living near us received a telegram saying that their family had escaped from Saigon and were now on Guam waiting for transport to the U.S. No mention was made of Sonya’s fate. A few days later, after frantic telegrams to Guam, we received another telegram telling us that Sonya was with them on Guam and that she was safe. We wept with relief.
A few days more passed, and we heard that the family and Sonya had been airlifted to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, which is located near Fort Smith, Arkansas, for processing into the U.S. My wife and I immediately made plans to travel to Fort Smith and try to bring Sonya back with us to Durham, North Carolina.
I contacted a representative of the Catholic Relief organization who was working at Fort Chaffee with the refugees. I asked him if he could try to find our little girl among the thousands of refugees that had poured into the camp. The next day he called back to tell us he had found her. He said, “She is beautiful.”
We arrived at Fort Smith and rented a car which we drove to Fort Chaffee. We arrived there at dusk, and the sight was amazing. There were Vietnamese refugees everywhere.
They had been assigned to WWII-era barracks. There were bulletin boards set up with hundreds of pictures of loved ones that were lost to the refugees who were there but that might have been somewhere in that throng of lost souls. Food lines had been set up; sanitation stations and telephone banks were available for those with relatives or friends already in the States. I saw one young woman throwing up on the side of the road as we walked toward the building where we were told that the family with Sonya was located.
I could only imagine the level of stress that these people must have been feeling having fled their homes and traveling thousands of miles to land in this starkly unfamiliar location. I was amazed at how quickly the US authorities had been able to mobilize the resources needed to set up this camp and welcome these disconnected thousands.
Looking back on what I saw on that trip, I must wonder why we can’t do the same thing on our southern border to administer to those asylum seekers in far fewer numbers than the wave of immigrant/asylum seekers coming from Southeast Asia?
We arrived at the building and met the family who had been helping us in Saigon. It was easy to identify me and my wife since I was the only Caucasian in sight, standing 6’3”, weighing around 230 pounds, sporting a rather bushy mustache.
Sonya was nowhere in sight. She was with one of the girls in the family we knew. Suddenly, she appeared; and she was beautiful. She appeared Eurasian but her hair was curly and lighter in color than the other children.
My first wife, who is full-blooded Korean, stepped toward her and put her arms around her. She turned to me and pointed and told Sonya, “There is your new daddy.”
I doubt that Sonya understood many of those words, but she took one look at me head-to- toe, went, “Yipe,” and ran for the door. I don’t think she had ever been as close to someone who looked like me before.
We collected Sonya to take her back to our motel. As soon as she got into the car, she fell into a deep sleep and began to sweat profusely. We stopped at KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) first and carried her into our room when we arrived. She woke up to eat and then went right back into the deep sleep with sweating. She must have been exhausted from the travel and the stress of the past days of travail and travel.
The next day we went back to Fort Chaffee and checked her out of the processing center. We said goodbye to our helpful family because they had to stay and finish their out-processing.
When we got off the airplane in Durham, the press corps from the city was there to greet us. They had heard that we were adopting one of the Vietnamese orphans and bringing her home from Arkansas. Sonya was front page news in the Durham Sun for a couple of days.
Sonya’s adjustment to life in Durham was relatively easy considering her background. She picked up English almost overnight. When she arrived, she spoke Vietnamese. She also understood and spoke a little French because Vietnam had been a French colony from 1862 until 1954, and the capital Saigon, often referred to as the “Paris of the Far East,” had an especially strong French influence.
We did make a mistake of taking her to a 4th of July fireworks celebration at the Duke University football stadium. When the first loud explosive fireworks were detonated, Sonya hit the deck at our feet. She was shaking and obviously frightened. We scooped her up and headed for home. It dawned on us that during the final days of the siege of Saigon there must have been a lot of artillery shelling and bombing that would have been brought back to her by the sounds of the fireworks (Isaacs & Downing, 1998).
Our family expanded again when we adopted a three-month old baby, a full-blooded Korean whom we named Julie. Julie was our sweet baby and rapidly grew into a bright, bouncing toddler. When we took the girls to the mall, we were often stopped by people who would point at Sonya and say, “You look just like your daddy.” (One Caucasian and the other half Caucasian.) Then they would point to Julie and say, “And you look just like your mommy.” (Both full-blooded Koreans.)
Over the years, Sonya grew to be a tall, willowy, accomplished young woman. She excelled at ballet and had an excellent high school record. She began college at the University of California Santa Cruz and completed her bachelor’s degree at the University of Redlands in southern California.
Sonya’s mother and I divorced in 1996. At that time, Sonya and I drifted apart. She married and moved to Minnesota with her husband. They had two children, Mitchell and Emma.
Another aspect of the coincidence of Sonya’s cancer with mine was that it was only a year before her diagnosis in 2014 that she and I had a reconciliation, meeting at her home in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. It was then that I met her children (my grandchildren) for the first time. By this time Sonya was divorced, working full-time, and being the single parent. She was determined to be the best mother possible and do all she could for her two children. I loved being with them and having the chance for them to get to know their heretofore unknown grandfather.
When Sonya notified Melody and me (Melody and I married in November 2000.) of her diagnosis, I thought, This can’t be happening. Both of us diagnosed with cancer at the same time. It didn’t seem fair, but then nothing about cancer is fair.
Colorectal cancer is relatively rare for people under 50 years of age, but the rate of cancer in younger people is rising. Sonya was 42 at the time she was diagnosed. The average age at the time of diagnosis for women is 72 (American Cancer Society, 2019).
Sonya’s doctors told her that the treatment plan for her would be chemotherapy followed by surgery to remove the cancerous section of her colon. Typical of Sonya, she approached this news with determination. She was going to do all that she could to make the best of the situation for her and her children.
Sonya and I went through the cancer treatment regimen at almost the same time. Sonya was diagnosed a couple of months after mine was discovered. But the treatment schedule was almost the same. Sonya did not have radiation, but she had chemotherapy and surgery. I had no surgery but endured the radiation.
We kept each other informed about our procedures and their outcomes when the information became available. We compared symptoms and side-effects. We both suffered from peripheral neuropathy after chemotherapy. Because of the effect of radiation on my tasting and swallowing, I lost weight. Sonya’s weight stayed about the same at first, but then she gained weight. That may have been the effect of the medication, including some doses of steroids.
Like me, Sonya had a lot of support from her co-workers and friends in Minnesota. Emma and Mitchell and her partner Tim were by her side through the entire process. I had Melody with me in Dallas. We both had support of other family living hundreds of miles away, but close emotionally. And we had each other. One of the greatest joys in my survivorship time has been the renewed relationship with Sonya and the love found with her and her beautiful children. Sonya and I share the fact that we are survivors not only of the cancers that we both faced but also of the estrangement that had darkened our lives.
The lesson for me in this is to never give up on a relationship that was once beautiful and meaningful. If there is any hope left in such a situation, keep it alive and nurture it in the hope that it will once again flourish. We can never know what lies ahead for us in our short time on earth. Staying positive through all the turns and surprises allows us to be flexible and resourceful when we most need our friends and loved ones, and they most need us to accept the support they offer.
Fred Zuker with editing and modifications by Valerie Coskrey, 2020