This is a story of a time in my life when I was diagnosed with Stage III Colon Cancer at the age of 39. It was through my faith in God and the prayers and support of family and friends that I am here today. Here I was with a husband and three children Collin – 10, Evan – 7 and Grace – 3 and a fight I never thought I would have to face.
In the fall of 2005, I went back to work I also noticed a change in my bowel movements, not a topic most people like to discuss. For every symptom I had, I could put a reasonable explanation with it: out of breath, fast heart rate – out of shape; throat tightening up – cool air and fast walking; tired – mother of three kids; change in bowel habit – drinking coffee all the time, coffee always worked as a laxative for me. So I really had no reason to be concerned. Until, well, one day I noticed blood in my stool, still I didn’t pay too much attention to it, reasoned it to be hemorrhoids. Later on in the fall I developed a bad cold and went to see my primary doctor, Dr. Robert Pennington, and told him of my other symptoms in an “oh by the way” context. Well, he didn’t like what he heard and scheduled some tests for me. He did blood work, which showed that I was very anemic, as well as, had me do a stress test to ensure that there was nothing wrong with my heart.
He scheduled me for a colonoscopy to investigate the blood in my stool. With insurance companies being what they are today, I almost didn’t have the colonoscopy because insurance wouldn’t pay for it since I was not 50 years old. Needless to say I didn’t feel I could spend several hundred dollars for the test, especially at the holidays. The doctor I was referred to performed the procedures in a local hospital so the cost would be fairly substantial. Not only would I have had the doctor’s bill, but also a fee from the hospital for use of space, and if anything had been found and removed, that would have added up as well. I just didn’t feel that I really needed to proceed at the time and would wait until the beginning of the New Year, especially since we pay our own health insurance and have a $2500 deductible in order to keep monthly premiums low. Insurance told me they would only pay 80% after putting out $2500 to start with. So, during one of my many calls to the insurance company, trying to convince them to pay, a young man told me of three local doctors who would do them in their offices for the cost of specialist visit co-pay $35.
On Tuesday, January 31, 2006, I had a consultation with the doctor who would perform the colonoscopy. After talking with him for a bit and giving him some background information he came to the conclusion that I really had nothing to worry about, and that most likely it would be a really bad case of hemorrhoids. The morning of Thursday, February 2, 2006, I had the procedure – I was totally out, now I think it was a very good thing. When I came to, the first thing I remember was the doctor telling me I had an appointment the next morning with an Oncology Surgeon at UNC Hospital at 8:00am. Now, you have to realize that I was quite surprised, because I was expecting to just walk out with a prescription of extra-strength Preparation-H. My dad took me this morning, he can wait patiently anywhere, so the doctor told me he needed to speak to my husband, I said just tell us what he needs to know and we will tell him. He would not do that so he called Greg on his cell phone. He had just taken our three year old to lunch and was pulling out of Chik-fil-A when the call came through.
Now you have to understand that if Greg doesn’t know the phone number showing up, he will not answer the phone, plus given the time of day, it should have been either my cell number or my dad’s. It must have been the hand of God guiding Greg to answer the phone. As he did so, the doctor introduced himself as the doctor who had just performed the procedure on his wife, Greg thought to himself, he’s not calling to tell me her pipes were clean. He proceeded to tell him what he had found and what the next steps would be. He doesn’t remember the drive to our house 15 minutes down the road. When he got off the phone, he left me a voicemail, you could tell he was crying and he told me we would get through this together.
I was then sent down the road to schedule an appointment for a CT scan for the next week. However, only by the grace of God, I convinced them to go ahead and do it that afternoon. So I was then able to take a CD of the images with me when I went to see the surgeon the next day.
On Friday, February 3, 2006, I arrived at UNC Hospital’s Cancer Clinic in the Gravely Building. I had been holding up ok until they called my name to go back and then I broke down. I will never forget the nurse with me that day putting her arms around me and telling me they would take good care of me. Dr. Michael Meyers was my appointed surgeon, very nice guy. We spoke of the options that were before us and then what the best course of action would be. One of our concerns was being based at UNC which is a good 30-45 minutes from our house or trying to get into Duke which is only 15 minutes from the house. The downside of trying to get in at Duke would have been the wait. I could have waited for weeks to get in there whereas I already had my surgery scheduled for 11 days later. I finally said that because I had been treated so well at UNC and, that if it was anywhere else we wanted to drive to we would, that was where I wanted to stay. So, we scheduled the surgery for Valentine’s Day, 2006, only 11 days later.
By the time I left that afternoon, I had all the pre-op taken care of and I didn’t have to return until the morning of the surgery. While we were consulting with the surgeon, I asked him if he could go ahead and do a tummy tuck. He just looked at me and laughed. I guess it was my way of dealing with what was about to happen in my life.
Well, its Tuesday, February 14, 2006, surgery day. The morning came early; I had to be at the hospital at 6:00am for prep. Things went really well, almost scary good. They had told my husband and parents that it should take about five hours but they were done in just over three. Dr. Meyers removed roughly 12 inches of my colon and was able to reattach the ends. I had 15 lymph nodes removed, and of those 15, three were cancerous.
A couple of days later, Dr. Meyers came in to give us the details of the staging of my cancer – Stage III. According to protocol, Stage III requires chemotherapy treatment. So as you may have guessed, one of our first questions was whether or not I would lose my hair. He said that with the regiment of drugs there would NOT be a great deal of hair loss. I told him if I did it would be okay, I would just shave my head to look like my husbands and then I would get those temporary tattoos that kids have and just cover my head. I also fussed at him for messing up my bikini line in case I ever got the nerve to wear a two-piece swimsuit again in this lifetime. He just looked at me and said he was glad to see I could have sense of humor and he felt that I would be okay after that conversation.
Thursday, March 31st, 2006, was my first of day of chemotherapy treatment. My husband went with me. Prior to going to infusion, I had to go to the hospital to have a port put in place. The port is designed for easy access to your veins. My port was implanted in the upper right side of my chest, other than the initial tenderness; I had no trouble with it at all. Upon arrival to the Infusion floor, I was greeted by some very nice nurses who took all my vitals, as well as, several vials of blood. I was then sat down in a chair and poked for the first time. I was initially given fluids while waiting for the chemo drugs to be ordered and brought up, they are mixed up on an as needed basis for each patient, not just kept on a shelf as you would expect. My chemotherapy regime consisted of three drugs: Oxaliplatin, Leukovorin, and 5FU. In addition to these, I would receive a dose of anti-nausea drugs and an antihistamine. A typical day in infusion would last about 4-5 hours, depending on how busy they were. Let me take a moment to describe the setting for you. There is one main infusion room with about 20 recliners along the walls. Each chair has an IV pole and table next to it; every other chair has a blood pressure monitor next to it.
During the time the pump was attached I couldn’t shower. Now before you start to think I must have really begun to stink by Saturday, I could take a bath, just couldn’t get the needle area or the tubing to the pump wet. However, once 12:00pm or 1:00pm came around on Saturdays, there was no doubt where you could find me – taking a long hot shower. It’s amazing how little things like that you take for granted.
This routine continued for a total of 12 treatments. As I said earlier Greg went with me for my first treatment and then other family went the next three. After that I decided I wanted to go on my own. I felt that if someone was with me, I needed to sit there and “entertain” them and that was not what I wanted to do. Instead, I would cat nap, sometimes I would have conversations with other patients. Over time you began to look out for people on the same schedule you were on and when they didn’t show up you would begin to worry whether or not they were ok. There were a couple of patients who, to this day I wonder about.
As I neared the end of my treatments, on two occasions, I developed what appeared to be an allergic reaction to the drug, Oxaliplatin. As a result I did not receive the last two doses of this drug. I am hoping that in the long run that it does not affect my overall recovery.
Well, the last day of treatment finally arrived, on Thursday, September 7, 2006. Once I completed my treatment, the nurses got together and sang a song and waved a magic wand over me in celebration. They also presented me with a certificate for the completion of my chemotherapy. It was a bittersweet day for me. I realized how lucky I was to be able to walk out and be done; and know that I had a very good chance for a healthy life ahead of me. But, I also knew that there were others that I got to know during that six-month period that wouldn’t be so lucky.
In closing I must acknowledge the staff and UNC for their wonderful care and professionalism. I must also thank God for His unfailing love because ultimately without Him, I wouldn’t be here today.
This past Valentine’s Day, I was fortunate enough to mark being cancer free for seven years. I am proud to be colon cancer survivor and even display it on my license plate: :CNCRSVR, so if you ever see me around town, just honk and wave.