"I ignored the symptoms of colon cancer for six months. I have lived with the consequences for 12 years."
Back in 1999, I was busy multi-tasking at life. I was teaching elementary school full time and taking a graduate class for a gifted endorsement. I was juggling family demands and being a neat freak at home and the combined stress, I thought, began to show.
I began living on prescription antacids. Maalox and Kaopectate were constant companions as I veered between constipation and diarrhea. My morning walks often began with a stop in the bathroom.
My primary care physician started worrying that this was more than stress. He gave me a home test kit for fecal blood and asked me to submit a sample.
"This is icky," I thought. "I’m not doing this." More weeks went by.
While teaching one day, I had a cramp in my abdomen intense enough that the kids noticed and asked me if I was okay. I brushed it off.
Finally, on winter break, I woke up one morning with abdominal pain like appendicitis. I went straight to a big fat medical book I keep on the shelf and began looking up symptoms. For the first time, it dawned on me that something was seriously wrong and I finally submitted the fecal test.
Soon after, my doctor told me I needed to see a gastroenterologist for a colonoscopy. I dithered for a few more weeks before finally having it done at 8:00 AM on February 15, 2000. At 4:00 PM the same day, the gastroenterologist called to arrange an office visit the next morning for me and my husband. I’m smart enough to know he had bad news.
"This doesn’t sound good," I said. "Did you take a biopsy?"
"Is it malignant?"
"I don’t like to do this over the phone."
"Is it malignant?"
"Yes," he responded. "You have colon cancer."
At age 45, five years before most people are even supposed to have their first colonoscopy screening, I had Stage 3 colon cancer that breached the colon wall and invaded my lymph nodes. My gastroenterologist told me the colon polyp that turned to cancer may have been there for ten years. There’s no history of colon cancer in my family. How could I have known? The answer? I could have known months earlier if I had paid attention to the symptoms and taken the fecal test my doctor recommended.
A surgeon removed 12-inches of my colon. Chemotherapy took me down to 95 pounds. I lost most of my hair. Over the last 12 years I have had at least 15 colonoscopy screenings to monitor for a recurrence of cancer or new polyps. I’ve had about that many CT scans of my chest, abdomen and pelvis to assure that it has not appeared in other organs. I now measure the arc of my life as before-and-after cancer. For the first few years, I often glanced over my shoulder at the specter of recurrence until, at some point, I made peace with it and began savoring the life I have to live.
Twelve years out, I recently ‘broke up’ with my oncologist. I have rediscovered my spirituality and grown closer to my husband and family. Colon cancer turned out to be one of those backhanded blessings life gives you. My personal experience has helped me walk with two loved ones on their cancer journeys. Would I have wished all this on myself in order to get to this place?
No way! My goal in sharing my story is prevention. With today’s research-driven screening guidelines, rising public awareness and superb technologies, you don’t have to suffer through colon cancer. You can prevent it.