“Doctors know cancer, but they don’t know me.”
My name is Colleen Mitchell and I am so much more than a cancer survivor. I am a wife, daughter, sister, friend, and teacher. I live in Boston, MA with my wonderful husband and am a teacher in the Boston Public School Department. I live close by to my parents, brothers, sister-in-law, two amazing nephews, and two goddaughters. All in all, I am blessed with amazing family and friends.
There was no family history of colon cancer, but ovarian cancer has inflicted many extended family members. Prior to my diagnosis, I thought I was overly nervous had a “funky” stomach. I got sick to my stomach easily, had to go to the bathroom a lot, had abdominal discomfort, blood in my stool, and as I got older, my back started hurting more and more. When I turned 30, I was always tired, but thought I was burning the candle at both ends because I was so busy. I soon learned my sense of normalcy was so skewed.
For our 30th birthdays, my husband and I decided to go to NYC for the weekend. When we got there, I was not feeling like myself. I was so tired, sick to my stomach, and uncomfortable. My husband could tell that something wasn’t right. Things were connecting for him and he was now well aware that it hadn’t been right for awhile, much to my strong denial. I had been in denial that my body wasn’t working right for sometime and did not understand that my symptoms were extreme. I thought what I was experiencing was part of everyone’s life. I am not a complainer, so I always just dealt with the pain. The day after returning, my husband made me call my primary care physician to be checked out. After hearing my symptoms, my doctor ordered a colonoscopy for the next morning. The next morning, my life changed. My colonoscopy revealed over 1,000 polyps “carpeting” my colon and rectum. I was then told I was very sick and had a hard fight in front of me.
After hearing the news, I was told that I was too sick to be treated at the hospital where my PCP worked. I needed to be seen by a specialist in Boston the next day. After meeting with the recommended specialist and being told I suffer from FAP, which is a rare genetic based disease, I traveled with my family to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota because most research based around FAP stems from the Mayo Clinic. Through our visit, we learned that my disease is based through a rare genetic mutation and that no other family members are at risk for this diagnosis.
When I was diagnosed, I was told that I had a year long battle in front of me in order to survive. My doctor was so accurate. Because of many surgeries, infections, and complications, I spent three months in the hospital fighting to live. I began my fulfox, 5-FU, and bolex treatments at BIDMS, but after my sixth infusion, I fell into a comma. I was not expected to survive. After time in the ICU, I woke up with complications, but I was alive.
Soon after, I decided to transfer my medical care to Mass. General Hospital. There they tweaked my chemo regime and I started back up with treatment. Three treatments later, I was back in the neuro ICU. Based on my doctor’s findings, through treatment, I became allergic to 5-FU. I could no longer continue chemo.
After receiving guidance from the doctors at the Mayo Clinic which paralleled with my new surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, I elected to have my colon and rectum fully removed at BIDMC in Boston. I can definitively say my surgeon, Dr. Deborah Nagle saved my life. After a 9+ hour surgery, my colon, rectum, and 99 lymphnodes were removed.
I am now a year out of chemo and feeling good, for the first time in my life! FAP is a disease that continues to cause problems in my body but my doctors at MGH watch me very closely. Since ending chemo I have had part of my pancreas removed and am facing surgery in two days to remove growths from my duodenum. FAP is a disease that will never go away and will continue to divide and multiply in my body, but I am no longer fighting to live. I consider myself a survivor.
The main thing that has gotten me through the last year is my amazing husband, parents, brothers, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, extended family, and friends. They say it takes a village to raise a child but it takes a village and more to maneuver through a cancer diagnosis. My family and friends are what pushed me to fight to live. My husband has never left my side, my parents have supported us like no one can imagine, my brothers have given me the gift of laughter through such hard times, and nieces and nephews have made everyday better.