For ten years Cara Cooper suffered from fatigue. She brought it up with her health care providers, but they gave her no explanation and never investigated why she was so exhausted. “I wanted to make my body strong to overcome whatever was going on internally,” so Cara decided building her strength and endurance would help overcome whatever was making her so run down. With support from her brother Clif, she began training to run long distance races.
In 2013 she ran her first 5K. In 2014 she and Clif ran the inaugural Walt Disney World Dopey Challenge: a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and a full marathon for a total of 48.6 miles. The multiple runs were the ultimate test of endurance, but at mile eighteen of the full marathon, Cara’s body completely gave out. “I refused to give up, especially with my brother right next to me.” She pulled herself off the course, allowed herself to cry, got angry, and got back up. She was determined to overcome what her mind and body were telling her because defeat was not an option.
Not long after finishing the Dopey Challenge, Cara sought another opinion from another medical team about her fatigue and other symptoms that had gone unexplained. This time a colonoscopy would be ordered, and in the summer of 2015 she would wake up to a possible explanation to the physical symptoms that had been plaguing her. The doctor explained there was a mass in her large intestine and immediately scheduled surgery to remove what they believed to be a tumor. That tumor turned out to be benign, or not cancerous.
While traveling over the winter holidays, Cara also began to train for the next Dopey Challenge. But the fatigue returned. This time it was accompanied by excruciating abdominal pain. “I couldn’t eat or enjoy all the things that made the holidays so special. All I wanted to do was lay down and sleep.” She begged her doctor to order another colonoscopy, and that second scope showed she had an additional tumor on the right side of her colon that had been previously missed. The word “cancer” was mentioned again, and Cara was immediately sent to see a specialist.
Surgery was scheduled, and scans showed evidence of cancer in her liver and possibly other organs. Cara got the feeling it was bad, but still never thought it could beat her. She even delayed surgery two weeks so she could participant in the Dopey Challenge. “My doctors thought I was crazy! Both kept asking me if I understood the diagnosis and how sick I was,” Cara recalls. One of her doctors let her know that if she could run a marathon in her condition, she would have no issues recovering from the surgery that awaited her on the other side of the finish line.
In early January 2016, Cara completed her second Dopey Challenge with her brother Clif. At that time Clif and the rest of her family didn’t realize the extent of the surgery that was ahead for Cara, or the possibility that she may have metastatic disease. The planned eight hour operation would include a liver resection and colectomy. “The first thing I remembered when I woke up was reaching down to see how bad the scar was.” The laparoscopic surgery had gone better than expected, lasting less than four hours.
Four weeks after her surgery she began adjuvant chemotherapy – meant to catch any cancer cells that may be circulating within her body. Within weeks Cara would find out she had a colon cancer and chemo buddy in her grandmother, who was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 91. “We entered chemotherapy within three weeks of each other. I would call her and we would swap stories and suggestions to relieve our nausea and fatigue. My grandmother was a four-time, stage IV cancer survivor,” Cara explains. “I knew if she could do it repeatedly, there wasn’t a reason for me not to. She was a strong person that gave me my inspiration and willingness to fight.
Throughout her treatment Cara ran and worked full time. “Running kept my mind occupied and focused. I didn’t have time to sit in self-pity or cry over what was happening to me. It continued to give me strength, even when it proved I was weak.” On her final day of chemotherapy, Cara celebrated in typical fashion – running with her brother. “The rack that holds our [race] medals fell off the wall from all the weight! I haven’t repaired the wall as it reminds me of how strong I became.”
Cara is determined to make cancer a small chapter in her life, not allowing it to become the entire story. It was only when her port was removed that she processed all she had been though. She now speaks about her journey in hopes her story will inspire anyone to fight for themselves. “Your mind will always try to convince you are tired and defeated. I’ve learned to shut that voice down and allow my body to speak for itself. Regardless of the odds, if you believe it is possible, you will overcome.”RETUN TO FACES OF BLUE LEARN MORE ABOUT YOUNG ADULT COLORECTAL CANCER