I was diagnosed when a tumor in my ascending colon, near my appendix, ruptured one night. I thought it was my appendix and my friend Jenn drove me to the hospital. She left around midnight thinking I would be having a laparoscopic appendectomy. That’s what I thought too. Imagine how I felt when I woke up at 4AM with a huge bandage covering my entire belly. The surgeon said there was a “mass” and he had performed a hemi-colectomy.
There was a bad snow storm that week and the pathology lab was short staffed and behind. It took four days to find out that the mass was adenocarcinoma. I healed and started chemo the following month.
I had very few symptoms, other than I felt bloated after meals. I didn’t think it could be serious because I felt fine and 30-somethings don’t get colon cancer, or at least that’s what I thought.
The treatment wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. After the tumor and half of my colon was removed I had 6 months of FOLFOX4 followed by another 6 months of 5FU/LV alone.
I kept working during the treatment and rarely felt that sick. I am a scientist doing basic research. Science is my life and I am happy that I could continue working. My toenails turned black, I lost feeling in my hands and feet and my memory wasn’t very good for about a year afterwards. Nobody warned me about “chemo brain”. Maybe the fog is actually a blessing. I’m not sure I want a clear memory of that year. Fortunately, I slept through most of it!
People cope in different ways, but I think denial went a long way for me. I never believed that I wasn’t going to make it. My friends were also a huge help. They kept me active, even taking me out while I was getting infused. They kept my life as normal as possible and allowed me to forget for a while.
My friends had to occasionally give me rides to appointments or visit me in the hospital. They helped with chores while I was recovering from surgery. Mostly they provided emotional support and did their best to keep my life as normal as possible over the year I was getting treatment. I am thankful that I have so many great friends in my life but I know this was difficult for them too.
My family knows that they are also at risk. I’m not sure they all fully understand but I tried to explain as best I could. Some of them didn’t want to know if my cancer was the “genetic” form. I don’t really understand this since regular screening could save their lives.
The effect on me is a little more insidious. I begin to forget but that is short-lived when my CEA goes up or I have to wait for the results of a scan. There’s always a grey cloud somewhere over my shoulder. It casts a shadow every time I need to have a scan or get screened for some other cancer.
It took me a year to get back into running shape but I was doing long walks throughout the treatment. Exercise probably isn’t what people think of when they are being treated for cancer but I think it helped me, if only mentally.
I am now five years from diagnosis and I feel great. Four years ago every step was painful, now I barely notice except for the days that I do really long runs. What sane person needs to run 15 miles anyway? Marathons are probably not in my future but I can accept that limitation. I am training for a 10 mile race in a few weeks and will be running the 5K for the colon cancer coalition this month. I’m awaiting scan results as I prepare for the races so that little dark cloud is still in the sky.
I take an aspirin a day and calcium/vitamin D. Aspirin, calcium and vitamin D are also supposed to protect against colon cancer. I also need to build my bones since I lost some bone mass from the chemo. My feet hurt from neuropathy and my abdomen hurts from 2 surgeries but it doesn’t slow me down much. I run 40 miles a week and try to ignore the pain. Ibuprofen is a perfectly acceptable breakfast food!
My diet has changed a little. I have always eaten a lot of vegetables, but wonder if that was such a good thing when you consider the pesticides on our food. I try to stick with organic food these days for that reason and grow my own vegetables in the summer.
Today, I am reminded of how lucky I am as I type this. I made and lost a friend while getting treatment and I think of him often. Seeing him fight and eventually lose the battle will stay with me for the rest of my life