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Faces of Blue: Gabrielle Denby

By March 5, 2013Faces of Blue

FOB-GabbyDenby1I grew up in upstate NY, my parents are artists, as well as one of my brothers, and the other brother works in the movie industry. I went to college at Mount Holyoke College and have a BA in both, Politics, and Religion. I went to the Maxwell School at Syracuse University for my masters in Political Science, and I am currently in my last year at Suffolk Law school for my JD. I would have graduated last May, but had to leave due to my diagnosis. I have lived in Boston since August 2009. I am interested in environmental law in terms of a sustainable economy; intellectual property; and international business and trade law. I am currently also active with a few cancer organizations that aim to educate and increase early testing.

2012 was my second year participating in this race. If someone approached me prior to August 2011, and asked me what colon cancer meant to me, I would think of a few descriptive terms: male, old, overweight, unhealthy, inactive, too much red meat, NOT ME. I am healthy, vegetarian, athletic, and my family has no history of colon cancer, or really any disease for that matter.

But I was wrong. Colon cancer is an insidious disease, which despite popular opinion, does not discriminate. In 2012 I ran the Get Your Rear In Gear 5k race, in 2011 I could barely walk. FOB-GabbyDenby2

On September 22, 2010, I was walking to my first day of work for a legal internship that I had been trying to get for two years. Before I even entered the building my gastroenterologist called me. She told me that, I have colon cancer. I said “okay” and went home.

A week later my colon was resected, and an apple sized tumor, 26 lymph nodes, along with a foot of colon was removed. I started chemo shortly thereafter. The treatment was awful, I had allergic reactions to everything, including the chemo itself. I even lost my hair (which I was told would not happen), but despite all of that, I think one of the most infuriating things that I experienced was that every person or doctor who I informed of my diagnosis, after being shocked speechless, responded with “Well at least they caught it early.” For me that is the most infuriating thing that someone could say to me.

When I was diagnosed, I was 26. I was also stage IIIB. The cancer had gone all the way through my intestinal wall and metastasized to my lymph system. If you Goggled survival rates for my stage I have about a 34% chance of surviving five years. Nothing about that says to me that, “they caught it early.”

I do not stand here to sadden you or upset people. I tell people this because it emphasizes exactly how important it is to support causes like Get Your Rear In Gear, and change how people see colon cancer.

FOB-GabbyDenby3Colon cancer is entirely preventable. It starts in a polop, which can be found and removed during a colonoscopy. However, as was unfortunately my experience, the medical community is largely unaware that occurrences of colon cancer, in individuals under 40, have increased 150% in the last five years. It is also the second leading cause of cancer related deaths in the U.S. I am not that rare, I was ignored.

I had been complaining of severe stomach pain for over eight years. When I was in high school I saw doctor after doctor for stomach pain so bad that I could not even stand. They told me I had acid reflux. In college my symptoms worsened and expanded to include bleeding, and not from the nose. However, my primary doctor told me I had hemorrhoids and did not even order basic tests.

In grad school I began throwing up every morning. I was told I had a stomach bug. Last year I was entering my third year of law school. That summer I was so constipated I informed my primary that I had not gone to the bathroom for what felt like months, could not eat without indescribable stomach pain, and was bleeding (a lot). She told me I had a fissure from the constipation and told me I should go home and give myself an enigma or go to the hospital for one. After 13 hours at the ER I was given multiple laxatives, mag citrate, had seen more doctors then I can count, given an x-ray, and finally after nothing was working, a colon prep. After all of it I was sent home after being given a lecture on how I was unhealthy, didn’t eat enough fiber, and “couldn’t let myself get this constipated again.” I WAS DOING THIS TO MYSELF.

Two days later the symptoms returned, but my primary sent me home telling me I should just wait it out. I have been waiting it out for eight years. I went to a gastroenterologist at BI. She immediately tested me for chrones, ordered a sigmoidoscopy, and as the story goes, a week later I was diagnosed. So no, my cancer was not caught early. In fact, it was caught, as estimated by my surgeon about eight years too late, meaning my tumor began to grow when I was about 17 or 18.

Despite everything, I have had “no evidence of disease” since April, and am now considered to be in remission. I wish that I could express some incredible relief that I won or I survived, but I am still mad, still scared, and as I like to joke, have another four years before I can qualify for life insurance.

I won’t stand here and tell you all the wonderful things I gained from my diagnosis. This is a rare experience that I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. However, I have been incredibly lucky. My boyfriend, Lucas, is the reason I finally found the doctor who diagnosed me. I had one of the best medical teams in the country. I have had incredible support, and met some truly amazing people along the way. I have been part of a cancer support group since I was diagnosed, as I felt alone, and like I was the only “young person” with colon cancer. The group is small, but still, four of the six FOB-GabbyDenby4members had or have colon cancer. One member, Kris, was diagnosed at 38, as stage IV. The cancer had spread through his lungs and liver. He was given 1-2 years to live, and had to fight to simply find a hospital that would treat him. I am happy to say he has had no evidence of disease for two years now. Kamryn, is another member. She too went undiagnosed despite actively seeking medical attention.

Groups like Get Your Rear in Gear are pivotal in raising awareness and money to support the fight against colon cancer. It is organizations like this that work so hard so that people like you and me never have to experience colon cancer. Colon cancer is not a popular cancer. We don’t have massive corporate advertising or a pink laden Barbie doll on our side. Colon cancer is also not very glamorous, and people don’t really want to discuss their bowel movements, but we can still change this. I can’t go back and regain what I have lost. I will never not worry about reoccurrence; those of us who have lost family will never be able to change that. But we can move forward, and perhaps, less and less people will have experiences like Kris’, Kamryan’s, myself, and so many others.

Gabby told this story prior to the 2012 Get Your Rear in Gear – Boston. Watch it below. Thanks c0nnectikid for the video!

Denby 2012 Get Your Rear in Gear – Boston

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