In 2005, Al McCluney never suspected the abrupt turn in the road that his life took. Active with his family (wife Laura, two daughters, and a son), church community, and a successful career in promotional sales, Al had routinely worked out, practiced yoga, had a healthy diet and been the family chef. In his mid 40s, he wasn’t at the age for most recommended cancer screenings. Yet, when his company provided stool test kits to all employees, Al, symptom-free, wisely picked up a couple of the tests and, even more wisely, followed through with the testing. When the test reported back three out of three positive samples, Al chalked the results up to error and submitted a second test. That test, too, underscored suspicious findings.
Simultaneously, Al was losing weight and scheduled an appointment with his internist. Ruling out classic causes for weight loss, Al’s doctor scheduled a colonoscopy.
“I knew something was wrong when I saw the doctor dash from the room at the end of the procedure,” says Laura, who from that point forward, signed on as Al’s committed cancer co-survivor. Al’s diagnosis was locally advanced stage 3 colon cancer in the ascending portion of the colon with lymph node involvement. Similar to the near-missed screening, finding cancer in the ascending colon is sometimes difficult as it is the very last portion scoped. Surgery and lengthy chemotherapy, with challenges and side effects, enabled Al to get back to living life confidently.
A routine oncologist visit three years later shook that confidence when blood tests flagged a cancer recurrence. Again, asymptomatic, Al was stunned that his cancer had returned. This time, the news drove its wedge a bit deeper. While Al fought back once again with chemotherapy and enrollment in a clinical trial and emerged with clear scans, he has suffered gastrointestinal infections, substantial weight loss and lack of appetite.
More happenstance: a vital connection to Minnie Pearl’s Supportive Services discovered earlier at a church cancer support group. Through consultations, Al has been able to share his perspective with an oncology social worker and call attention to the need for more survivorship support. The registered dietitian has steered Al safely onto a course of high calories and ways to gain weight. Al is successfully gaining weight back and increasing his strength and energy.
While Al’s story is riddled with life-giving paths and turns, his strong survivor voice is not about coincidences. It’s about living deliberately and acknowledging what has sustained him. Al responds with, “faith, a loving family and friends, a stellar medical team, work flexibility, and learning to accept help, even when I would have preferred to mow my own lawn.”
“I have complete faith that the cancer is gone. On my office wall among the various sales plaques and awards is my ‘Purple Heart Award’ ‘graduation’ plaque signed by my oncology nurses; it really means the world to me.”
In memory of Al McCluney, who passed away since this story was published. We are honored to have shared in Al’s journey.