Most of 2013 I was convinced I had a food allergy. These days cutting out dairy or gluten cures everything in a 39-year-old woman. I convinced myself any bloating or constipation I had must be related to my affinity for a good cappuccino and disinterest in Metamucil. During a routine check up I mentioned my assumption and my vegetarian diet to my doctor. She looked at me sideways and nodded slowly. “Could be,” she said, “but why don’t you check with a GI doctor about that.” Ugh, really? I have 3 children, a husband, a job, a non-profit board I sit on and a ½ marathon I’m training for…. making an appointment for another doctors appointment is not what I wanted to do. As the evening went on I reminded myself of my cardinal doctor rule. If I wasn’t going to take the advice of my doctor then I needed a new doctor! So, I submitted and the next morning I called the GI doctor and made an appointment.
After making my appointment with the GI doctor it occurred to me that I had never asked my parents about their GI history (after all, who does?). So faced with the prospect of showing up to my doctors appointment and making up my own creative answer to the question, “Do you have any family history of GI issues?” I called each of my parents. My mom had no history and couldn’t think of anyone in our family tree with any GI issues of note. (Luckily my mom has great memory for these types of things). My dad was also glad I called him. He replied that over the years he had some polyps removed every so often but nothing had ever come back worrisome.
The day of my GI appointment was upon me. I met my new doctor, he was really nice, appeared to be my age and very much the expert in my tummy troubles. Could be a food allergy for sure, but since I’d been cutting out wheat and dairy for a while now with no change he suggested that I have an endoscopy. Also, since my dad had a history of polyps I fit the national recommendations to have a colonoscopy when I turned 40 later in the fall. “What? I thought colonoscopies were only for people over 50?” I asked. “Well usually they are, but your dads polyps make you a candidate. Don’t worry Julie, someday, when I turn 40 I will need to get one too.” Insert smiley face.
I had the endoscopy and they found nothing, it was absolutely normal. So I just kept on cutting out everything related to dairy (If you drink enough almond milk your taste buds change and you don’t crave dairy milk, I promise.) I left gluten in the dust too. Who knew you could be jealous of your kids PB&J sandwiches. Nothing was changing in the tummy trouble department but I convinced myself that everything takes time.
One day I was paying my co-pay to the hospital where I had my endoscopy and I realized I had officially paid my annual insurance deductible. “Sheesh,” I thought, “I wonder if my Dr. was serious about that colonoscopy…. maybe I should just get it done.” I sheepishly called and confirmed that yes indeed my doctor wasn’t kidding about his recommendation of a colonoscopy, I did what anybody in my situation would do, put if off as long as possible. December 17, 2013.
On December 17, 2013 I had completed all of the prep (whatever, I’d had 3 children and climbed Kilimanjaro, this was no big deal) and my good friend Amy and I made jokes all the way from the waiting room through pre-procedure prep. I was looking forward to spending Christmas with my husband, kids and in-laws in Arizona. The colonoscopy nurse had the coolest earrings I thought before I went under.
I awoke to my husband and my pale looking GI doctor. “Sweetie,” my doctor and husband said, “you have colon cancer.” That is where my journey into my world of cancer began. The next couple of weeks were a bit of a blur. I had surgery (instead of going to Arizona) on December 21. They removed 14 inches of my colon, a tumor the size of a golf ball, and 47 lymph nodes (4 of them with cancer). I am a survivor of Stage 3B colon cancer.
The technical part of my cancer journey has included a complication from my colectomy surgery, a purple power port and 12 rounds of FOLFOX chemotherapy. The more important emotional part of my cancer journey has included more love than anyone could ever ask for. I had always felt lucky to live in Alaska, but having cancer in Alaska taught me that I was more than right. My community drove me, feed my family, laughed with us, cried with us and worked hard to help my husband and children feel connected and continue their lives so I could focus on loving them and taking care of myself.
I finished chemotherapy treatment last August. It hasn’t been a year, but I am beginning to feel like if I don’t think too hard I can pretend that it never happened. Then I touch the scar under my collarbone where my purple power port once was. That port made it easier to infuse my body with powerful but hopefully life saving cocktails. It happened. I am not the same. I am more than grateful for everything I’ve learned and everyone who came before me to lead me through this cancer journey.
Bottom line, listen to your body, listen to yourself and listen to your doctor.