By Kevin Paul Dupont GLOBE STAFF NOVEMBER 16, 2014
Because he didn’t have one, and now because he knows he should have, Bryan Murray is reminding everyone of the importance of a colonoscopy. Not important for you? Fine, but that’s how he used to think about it, too.
Murray, the Ottawa Senators’ general manager, age 71, was diagnosed in June with Stage 4 colon cancer. He told TSN’s Michael Farber, formerly of Sports Illustrated, all about his ordeal, including his regret about never scheduling a colon exam, in a sterling piece of journalism that the network aired on Thursday.
“I should have demanded one, or at least asked for [a colonoscopy],’’ Murray told Farber. “But like a lot of men do, I put it off.’’
For those of us who’ve dealt intimately with these stories — in my case, losing both parents to cancer — Murray’s plight is painfully, regrettably familiar.
Regular testing isn’t perfect, but it is best, smart, prudent. We all know that. We hear it all the time. But knowledge and anxiety (fear of what could be at work inside our bodies) walk on opposite sides of the street for most of us. If what we know and what we fear were comfortable holding hands, then what would we do with the surplus of couches and comfy chairs that fill psychiatrists’ offices around the world?
Sorry, I don’t mean to be flippant, but trying to find just the tiniest laugh in these regrettable tales is often a way of stemming an ocean of tears.
I saw that reach for humor in Murray during the TSN piece when a nurse, administering to his medications, asked if the chemo drugs prevented him from sleeping at night. Yes, he said, emphatically, especially the first nights following the treatment.
With an impish smile, Murray looked at the nurse and said, “How do I counter that . . . alcohol?’’
According to Murray, doctors told him he might have been living with cancer for the last 10 years. It is now in his liver and there are spots of it on his lungs.
A colonoscopy administered in, say, 2004 or 2007, probably would have identified the cancer, leading to a course of treatment that could have eradicated it before it metastasized.
“A simple colonoscopy, in my case,’’ said Murray, “probably would have solved the problem.’’
My father’s case was very similar. He awoke on the morning of his 67th birthday (March 10, 1989) with searing abdominal pain. Surgery hours later revealed he had pancreatric cancer. The surgeon told him it began as colon cancer, likely years earlier, and eventually invaded his pancreas. He was dead within six months, an excruciating six months during which he chose only pain management.
The worst of watching his suffering was, in his final days, being by his bedside while medical staff slid tubes down his throat to suction mucus that constantly built in his lungs. Had he only gone for the colonoscopy.
“It would have found the cancer before it spread to the pancreas,’’ said his surgeon. “He must have endured a lot of pain, and ignored symptoms, for a long time.’’
My mother’s end, nearly 20 years later, was because of bladder cancer, misdiagnosed for more than a year as a urinary infection. When the pain was too much, and the correct diagnosis finally made, it was too late. She was gone in less than four months. Proper testing combined with an accurate diagnosis might have saved her. In her case, she went for annual checkups and was quick to seek help when symptoms were first evident. A lesson, a painful one, that neither tests nor doctors are always right. But not a reason to eschew testing.
“There is no cure for me at this point,’’ a solemn Murray told Farber.
Yet there is treatment, and Murray has been steadfast in undergoing chemotherapy to reduce the size of the tumors and, in turn, add days to his life. His grit and courage, mixed here and there with wit, determination, and strength, are typical of hockey people, but also not exclusive to that breed.
It’s easy to define Murray as “a hockey guy’’ because he has lived the game for the vast percentage of his 71-plus years. But to say now that it’s his “hockeyness” that sustains him would be to slight too much of his being. We summon our greatest strengths not from what we are but who we are. We’re witnessing his humanity.
One of my most vivid memories of Murray is one from his second year of coaching the Washington Capitals, 1982-83, with rookie Scott Stevens, now a Hall of Famer, on his bench. The hardrock Stevens often fought, something Murray didn’t discourage, yet he did constantly urge the young defenseman to fight at the right time. More than once — including this particular night I was in the Capital Centre press box — Murray would plant himself behind Stevens on the bench and then wrap both arms around him to prevent him from vaulting over the boards to engage in a fight. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen it in the NHL, a coach literally wrapping up his player.
Decades later, now in a much bigger struggle, Murray is holding on again with all his might.
Courageously, he says he wants his struggle to be an example, and that he “be part of the solution’’ in reminding all of us about the importance of colonoscopies.
He thought he was healthy. He had no family history of colon cancer. When the subject came up during his routine medical exams, he let it slide. Something so simple now has turned into something so utterly complicated.
Murray told TSN he has asked, more than once, “How come there were no signs?’’
Cancer so often is a silent, insidious menace, and sadly there are times when tests make no difference. When you know someone who is stricken by it, though, and hold their hand amid their pain, and in some cases try to relieve them of their regret, the greater fear becomes not having the test. It really is best to let that fear win you over.