Hi, my name is Denise and I am from the Seattle area. I was diagnosed with Stage II colorectal cancer in October 2011 at the age of 38. I have virtually no family history of cancer, but I actively volunteered for the American Cancer Society and knew the statistics for getting cancer. When I received my diagnosis, it didn’t totally shock me – what did shock me was the type of cancer since I knew so little about colorectal cancer.
I had been noticing blood in my stool for over a year, but tried to ignore it and hoped that it would go away on its own. I’m not one to speak up about embarrassing bathroom matters, so I didn’t mention it to anyone.
I finally made an appointment for a physical, and casually mentioned my symptom in passing. My doctor didn’t seem alarmed, but was cautious enough to refer me to a GI doctor, telling me that I probably had hemorrhoids or fissures. The GI doctor reassured me that since I was young, had no history of colon cancer in my family, and didn’t have any other symptoms, there was no rush to get in. I made my colonoscopy appointment three months later.
When I came out of sedation following my colonoscopy, a nurse told me that the doctor wanted to see me. He said, “You have cancer…” three words you never want to hear! My GI doctor whisked me off to his scheduler who calmly planned out my next steps: CT scan, blood work, appointments with the surgeon, radiology oncologist and oncologist. Within a few weeks, they had mapped out a course of treatment that would take me nearly a year to complete. At the time, a year looked like an eternity, and I was dreading it. I tried to look at this diagnosis as a speed bump– it would slow me down, but it wouldn’t stop me.
My course of treatment started on Halloween 2011 with 28 treatments of chemo-radiation. I wrapped up my last radiation treatment in mid-December and spent the next 9 weeks enjoying the holidays and the New Year while the radiation continued to shrink my tumor. I went in for my colon resection surgery on January 31st, and woke up to a most unwelcome ileostomy.
I struggled with my decision to have chemo. The oncologist was recommending it (of course), but the statistics were only going to give me a few more percentage points of no recurrence, and I was already feeling so optimistic about my results that I didn’t think it would be necessary. Besides, if I didn’t have chemo, that meant I could have my ileostomy reversed in 6 weeks instead of 6+ months. I finally agreed to try chemo and if I couldn’t handle it, I would stop. I was able to successfully complete the 9 rounds of chemo that my doctor recommended with minimal side effects. The neuropathy didn’t develop until three weeks after my last treatment, so now I question if it was the best decision for me.
The hardest part of the whole journey for me was the ileostomy. It was hard for me emotionally, and it led me into a depression post surgery. I couldn’t stop crying the day they wanted to release me from the hospital – I couldn’t imagine taking care of this “thing” on my own. And for five weeks after surgery, I didn’t leave the house unless it was to go to a doctor’s appointment. I didn’t know how I was going to cope with using public bathrooms. I was convinced that people could see it under my clothing, and I was paranoid about having an accident.
I slowly got used to it, and it became second nature. I had the bag for nearly 8 months, and although it no longer prevented me from living a normal life, I was very excited to have it reversed. The reversal didn’t go as easily as I had hoped and I had two setbacks during my recovery, with one of them landing me in the hospital overnight. It has been eighteen months since my reversal, and I am still trying to pinpoint what foods are going to trigger a bout of diarrhea.
Not only does cancer take a physical toll on your body, it causes an emotional toll that you should not ignore. My physical health has come back for the most part, and I am healthier than ever – I’ve lost weight, I eat a better balanced diet, I work out regularly, and I am more vigilant about seeing my doctors.
From Day 1, I never considered that this was going to kill me. I knew that it was going to make me stronger, and it was going to lead me down a path to becoming an advocate for cancer patients. From the first day I focused on remaining strong, maintaining my positive attitude, and being open to sharing my story with anyone who would listen. As a result of me sharing my story, I have encouraged numerous people to have colonoscopies, and am happy to report that it has prevented at least two cases of colon cancer because they caught pre-cancer polyps at ages 40 and below. If they would have waited until the normal screening age of 50, who knows if they would have had a fully developed case of colon cancer?
To me, Get Your Rear in Gear means to get off your butt and get active! Physical activity can help prevent cancer. I also see it meaning get your rear into the doctors to get screened!
If you are diagnosed, take it one day at a time. When you are going through treatments, it feels like time stands still and you will never get through them. But hopefully you’ll get to a point where I am now, where I can look back and think, “Gee, that wasn’t so bad!”