I Went to the Doctor With Stomach Pains—and Found Out I Had Stage 4 Colon Cancer
Three years ago, Kate Bowler was living her dream: a professor at Duke University’s Divinity School, she had married her high school sweetheart, and they were raising a little boy. Then her life changed in a heartbeat.
This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
It was all starting to come together. My husband and I had finally been able to have a baby after a lot of sorrow. I had just published a book. I was so excited to finally feel like I’d gotten my life on track.
Then I started having these stomach pains. I assumed it was a problem to be solved—I thought, "Maybe it’s my gallbladder, maybe it’s this or that." But my doctors couldn’t find a solution. They just saw a typical 35-year-old woman who seemed like she was otherwise in pretty good health. There were no alarm bells going off.
But the pain was getting bad. I thought, "This is stupid, you should be helping me!" It’s hard to get people to take you at your word when you’re talking about pain. I finally demanded a scan, and I got a phone call two days later telling me I had stage 4 cancer.
There are certain things that are so terrible that they’re unimaginable. I had devoted my life to studying something called the American prosperity gospel—it’s what my book was about. It’s this religious movement where people believe that God gives you health and wealth and happiness if you just have the right kind of faith.
Even though I was raised as a Mennonite, I had absorbed that same message. I expected that everything was going to work out for me, because I worked so hard and I had a family that needed me. Weren’t those arguments for me to live? There are so many mythologies about why good things happen to good people, but the truth is there are no guarantees.
Getting diagnosed with a major illness is like having a bomb go off in your life. I was a normal person—and then all the sudden I was living in a 24-hour siren montage. I went from wearing my blazer and jeans to work to wearing rough cotton. Every conversation with the doctors was unimaginably scary. I was told I was probably not going to make it through the year.
Emotionally, it was immediate triage, like: Okay, who do I have to tell? Who do I have to say that I love them? I realized all the things I love are so fragile and so dependent on each other. My greatest happiness was my little family, and their happiness was dependent on me, and I was standing on nothing. Every part of your life is just dominoes at that point: your health, your finances, your job security.
As a patient, I thought I had to be a superhero. The hardest working cancer patient in show business. I was cheerful, I was uncomplaining. It wasn’t just because I’m a high-achieving person who thought I could work my way out of this. I also saw that everyone needed to know that I was trying my best, because they were as scared as I was. There is a tremendous amount of pressure on sick people. Everyone wanted to know I was going to be okay, but sometimes that’s just not true.
The worst part was the fear for my son. What would this mean for this life? Every time I looked at him, I felt like my brain was going to explode. And that gave me so much empathy for what my parents were feeling. They finally launched their kid, and now they’re worried about how to help raise their grandchild and pay for medical bills.
My son was just Teflon the whole time. He was a joy to be around because he was relentlessly cheerful. Our home life became like a little cocoon. You don’t know how much time you have, and we wanted to make sure that the time we did have was really real, that we weren’t just trying to get through it.
At work, I felt like I was facing the opposite of the "What would you do if you won the lottery?" question. What would you do if you had limited time, but you weren’t sure how much? Should I quit my job? Should I try to get tenure, which assumes I’m going to live forever?
It’s been like walking in the dark with a flashlight, in terms of the prognosis. The drugs that I’m on are so young in medical history that there’s no projected future. There are just guesses. That’s been my whole life since the diagnosis: I get a little window, and I make choices, and then hopefully I get another window.
I think of my health and my life as a gift parceled out in small doses. I treat it really gratefully. I have scans every three months, and after each one, I get another bit of future. About a year after my diagnosis, I started working out again. Then I started trying slightly harder workouts. And then I tried experimenting with different medication. Now I’ve written two books, and I just got tenure.
My son still doesn’t know. He’s four now, and there’s no visible sign that I’m sick, so he really doesn’t need to know. What’s lovely about that for me is I get to see things through his eyes. He has a mom and a dad who love him, and who live very intentionally in the present.
Now I’m in what my friend calls the Fellowship of the Afflicted. When I go into the cancer center, I think: these are my people. When I see homeless people, when I see kids crying in the grocery store, when I see someone who just looks like it’s hard to keep it together: those are my people. I see fragility everywhere in a way that I never did before.
It can be hard to keep trying. You’re caught between two thoughts: that you’re about to be steamrolled and that everything is possible. Sometimes I feel like I pull a thread on a decision and everything just unravels. But at the same time, the math is so different now because everything has to be chosen. You can’t let decisions choose you.
The urgency can lend itself to being on hyperdrive. But you have to be gentle with yourself. I like to ask myself: What is possible today? Some days are just better or easier than other days.
I gave up telling myself that I’ll always get to see things through, that I’ll always get to see the end of things. If my life is like a house, and I’m building it, I just decided that I have to keep building even if I might not get to live in it. Because the act of building it is the truest, best thing I know how to do. And honestly, what else would I do with my time? How much Netflix is there to watch?