I was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer in February 2007, at age 34. I was young, fit, healthy in every way, and it came out of nowhere and blew my world apart. Despite it all, I just celebrated my seventh survivor anniversary (2014) and am here to tell the world that colorectal cancer is not only treatable, but is curable and preventable.
I share the same story that is typical of so many young CRC survivors in that I’d experienced heavy rectal bleeding for the better part of three years and was told I had hemorrhoids, IBS, digestive imbalance, etc., and was denied colonoscopy screening. When my primary doctor finally decided it was time for a colonoscopy, she told me: “Let’s send you to get scoped. But I don’t want you to freak out. They’re not going to find cancer or anything like that — you’re too young”. Yep. Famous last words…
I had my first colonoscopy on January 19, 2007 — it was freezing out that morning (maybe not to most, but hey, I’m a native FL girl, so it was darn cold in the 30’s!). The gastroenterologist, who was, himself, certain I simply had IBS or hemorrhoids, was shocked to discover the huge 13cm. sessile polyp – a villous adenoma – just hanging out like it owned the place at my recto-sigmoid juncture. That explained the bleeding, the horrible tummy issues, pain, etc.
When I was fully awake from the anesthesia, I was told I’d needed surgery soon. Soberly, the good doctor informed me that if I didn’t have cancer yet, it wouldn’t be long. I was referred to a colorectal surgeon and told to schedule surgery within the next few weeks and not put it off beyond that. I knew it was serious, but at this point it really didn’t register with me about the cancer because it wasn’t a definite. The thought of having a massive abdominal surgery freaked me out and made me mad. I’m vain — I admit it, and the thought of my perfectly flat, un-stretched tummy being cut and scarred really torked me off.
Fast-forward a week — my GI doc called with the biopsy results, and I was informed the polyp showed signs of dysplasia. He couldn’t quite tell if it was cancerous, but again reiterated that it needed to come out, now. I was at work, so I ran to my boss’ office and shut the door, and she just hugged me while I cried. I’m so grateful that she is such a compassionate soul.
I met my colorectal surgeon a week later. He explained the surgery and gave me information about chemotherapy and survival odds. Although as his youngest patient, he wasn’t expecting cancer, especially with no family history. So, on the day of my surgery (February 13, 2007), I went to the hospital with my overnight bag of makeup and toiletries in hand. Yeah, right! I was totally stupidly oblivious to just how horrendous a colon resection surgery was. I was doped on morphine, in ICU, and couldn’t move because it hurt so badly. I thought I was dying. And it just got worse from there.
A few days into my five-day hospital stay, my surgeon (affectionately known now as “Butt Doc”) visited to check on me and somberly told me about my tumor and positive lymph node; I think he was as shocked as I was to know I had cancer. Thankfully, the tumor and lymph nodes were out, but I’d need chemo to prevent recurrence, and he’d already set me up with the best oncologist in the area (Doc Weiss – you rock!).
I remember calling my dad and telling him I would need chemotherapy, and that I had cancer — although I’m not sure I even knew what I was saying, between the morphine and shock. It wasn’t until I was home the next week that the gravity of what was happening hit me. My first reaction, consistent with the general perception of cancer, was that I was dying. Through ACS I found Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA), and they were truly my lifesavers. They put me in touch with other young survivors who’d been right where I was. One was facing her own battle at the time. These girls gave me so much hope and helped so much in my treatment and survivorship journey, and some days their emails and calls were the only thing that kept me sane as I struggled with the grueling chemo and fear of recurrence.
Every other weekend I went home with my trusty chemo pump, “Bob”. Yep, I named him. This relationship lasted for twelve rounds of FOLFOX, from March to Labor Day weekend, 2007. I must say that sleeping and bathing with Bob wasn’t very exciting or romantic; it was a love-hate relationship. I thought that summer would never end, but it did, and I finished chemo a week before my 35th birthday (Bob will always hold a special place in my heart, though).
Every milestone for me was huge. First, finishing treatment, then the first scans and scope after treatment — talk about scanxiety! Then came the two-year mark, when the risk of recurrence was highest, then three, when it was still high, then four. Then, that magic five-year mark. I finally exhaled, and the fear did lessen over time, though I still have my days.
My oncologist turned me loose in October of 2012, which was a bit past my 5-1/2 year NED (no evidence of disease) mark. He told me I didn’t need him anymore, which was bittersweet, because I am so blessed to have had such an amazing doc. While I knew colorectal cancer is considered cured with 5 years of NED, hearing it “officially” was awesome. I only wish everyone could hear those same words, and I pray one day that will be possible.
So, here I am, 41 now. I’ve struggled to regain fitness after treatment, dealt with and overcame major depression after treatment, my bones are thinning and I have developed, what appears to be, fibromyalgia type symptoms. Oh yes, and there’s the permanent neuropathy in my feet from chemo as well. And of course, I can’t forget all the signature digestive issues from resection, as most colorectal cancer folks can attest to. I think I may have a touch of chemo brain, too. But, I’ll take it — it’s much better than the alternative. I’m alive and happy to be generally very healthy.
I’m so grateful to all who provided such great support and to all those who work so hard to further awareness of this issue — y’all are my heroes! My wonderful “Butt Doc” (thanks Doc Tolland!) is now used to me asking if I’m going to be violated when I visit and never yells at me for keeping the old folks (I am the youngest patient, still) in the waiting room in stitches with all my butt jokes. Hey, you gotta keep a sense of humor when you have sigmoidoscopies every six months… 🙂
My mission as a young survivor is to use my platform to educate as many folks as possible, and to help overcome some of the misconceptions surrounding this very preventable cancer. Colorectal cancer is NOT an older white man’s disease. It DOES NOT discriminate based on age or gender. It can occur anytime, in anyone, at any age. Know your risks. Get screened. It may save your life.