Bob Richardson is a little pushy with some of his friends, and he’s not going to apologize for it. “I will dog you to get a colonoscopy,” he says. “You don’t have time? Don’t think you have issues? Don’t like the idea of the procedure? Guys – You’re asleep. Get the colonoscopy.” He takes no excuses, and he doesn’t take “no” for an answer. For those that procrastinate, he threatens to show his scars to their wives, marks of battle earned through his personal journey with colon cancer. “I will drive you. I will make the appointment for you,” he tells them. “I just keep harping.”
A few years ago, Bob – who farms in Macon and works for the Norfolk Southern Railroad – was the one who didn’t have time for the colonoscopy. With no history of cancer in his family, he wasn’t overly concerned when he first began feeling ill in March 2012. At first, they thought it was food poisoning. When his symptoms didn’t go away, his doctor diagnosed him with a bacterial illness, then suggested he had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. It took nearly a year for Bob to receive the correct diagnosis – colon cancer. By that time, the cancer had spread to his liver.
In February 2013, doctors gave Bob two years to live. “All of it was totally overwhelming,” says Tammy, Bob’s wife of 40 years and high school sweetheart. She looks back with hindsight: “I wish we’d been more aggressive with the doctors before the diagnosis. Our regular doctor had recently retired, and we didn’t know where to go.”
When the general practitioner they visited didn’t immediately find anything of concern, they didn’t push for a colonoscopy, accepting at first the doctor’s suggestion that Bob’s trouble was a food-related issue. “He had (cancer) going in,” Tammy says. “But it might not have spread so much if it had been caught quicker.”
Bob received his colon cancer diagnosis on a Wednesday. On Thursday, they learned the cancer was also in his liver. On Friday, family pushed them to head to the Mayo Clinic without an appointment. “You put one foot in front of the other,” Tammy says about making it through the initial diagnosis. “We did what we had to do, and it was scary as hell.”
Every step seemed to bring more bad news. On Sunday, only four days after his diagnosis, Bob and Tammy showed up at Mayo, hoping for a cancellation. The next day, they got their wish, but the appointment brought more heartache instead of hope – the cancer ran deeper than they had originally thought, surfacing in spots on his lungs. Recommended treatment included surgery, but the thoracic surgeon, looking at the spots on his lungs – the size of grains of sand – refused.
Back in Missouri, at Missouri Cancer Associates, Bob immediately began an aggressive course of chemo so strong that, 10 minutes after the drugs were fighting the cancer in his body, all the color would drain from his face. His jaw would lock up, and he couldn’t talk.
By the time he was into his third chemo treatment, he had to push himself to keep going and endure the drug’s side effects. The two-year prognosis weighed heavily on him. He reminded himself he was doing it for his family. “(The chemo) was killing me,” he said.
Watching him struggle with the pain of the chemo and feelings of hopelessness, Tammy and his two kids, Lynette and Tim, pushed him to remember to fight. “This is not the end of everything,” Tammy would remind him.
Despite the encouragement of his family and his efforts to stay strong, depression set in. Dr. Joseph Muscato from MCA added an anti-depressant to his RX regimen. “It was the best thing we did,” Bob says, looking back about getting help for his depression.
In June 2013, hope arrived. Responding to the chemo, the spots on his lungs had disappeared. Dr. Muscato was a staunch advocate for Bob, insistent upon the surgery he needed, and Bob discontinued chemo for four months both to prepare for surgery and then to recover. “Dr. Muscato – this is the doctor you want,” Bob says about the ally he found.
In August, the surgeon removed 18 inches of Bob’s colon, 20 percent of his liver, and a portion of his diaphragm. In October 2014, a new scan revealed the spots on his lungs had returned. “It was a roller coaster,” Tammy says. “Big highs, and big lows.”
“Early on, you just have to lean on faith and hope for the best,” Bob says about facing a cancer diagnosis. He’s proof that you can’t give up. Today, four years after his initial diagnosis and prognosis of two years to live, Bob is a regular at MCA, arriving every two weeks for the maintenance chemo he will be on for the rest of his life.
“The people are all tremendous,” he says about his care and support team at MCA. “Dr. Muscato is open to talk to. He’ll answer any question, explore any option. You call with questions, and it’s no big deal.” The long-standing fight has created a secondary family for Bob, with friendships that go beyond basic health care professional and patient interaction. “You see wedding photos, baby photos,” Bob says. “Danielle adopted me when I came in – they all take great care of me,” he adds with a smile.
“I can’t even begin to compliment the whole place enough,” says Tammy. “From Dr. Muscato to the techs to the people who clean to the volunteers. Everyone is helpful and upbeat. You don’t want to be there, but the people make it bearable.”
“I like it where I am,” Bob says about choosing MCA. “But I pray for the day when they are all unemployed.”
Life looks a little differently than it did for him in 2013, and it’s not all because of the cancer. He’s now a grandpa, with three grandsons – Cannon, 1; Sam, 1½; and Bode, 2½. Each year, he buys a calf to raise and sell to build up their college funds. The boys like going for rides on the John Deere Gator – and their Dairy Queen trips for ice cream and fries – with Grandpa. “(Cancer) changes how you look at life,” he says. “I am a baby boomer. I was a workaholic, and it was an inconvenience to take time out, go on vacation. Now, if you want to go do something, I say, ‘Yeah – let’s go.’” He says he has become more forgiving and a better listener. Knowing how terrified he was at his first chemo treatment, he often seeks out newcomers at MCA to offer support. “I’ve had 101 treatments. I know the ropes.” he says
Through his journey, Bob says he’s also become more passionate about helping people. “If it will get somebody tested, it’s worth it,” Bob says about sharing his story with others. “There’s no tomorrow for me or for you. Only right now,” he says. “Life is good. Cancer sucks, but life is good. Without it, I wouldn’t have met all of these wonderful people.”
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. Early detection makes the difference.