I was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer on June 1, 2017. I was 29-years-old. I first started noticing symptoms in November of 2015. I was experiencing abdominal cramps that didn’t seem to want to go away. I figured maybe my diet was to blame, so I tried eating less and eating healthier, but there was no improvement. I noticed I had a relatively light period that month, but it seemed normal considering I changed up my diet so drastically. My husband urged me to call my doctor, but with it being the holidays and a busy time of year, I wouldn’t be able to get in until almost a month later.
Then I noticed I had missed a period in December. I took a home pregnancy test and it was positive. I figured that’s why I felt like crap. I met with my doctor anyway, feeling so happy that I had figured out what was wrong. She confirmed I was indeed pregnant with my second child.
During my pregnancy my symptoms slowly got worse. I was in more pain with constipation, and noticing blood after each bowel movement. Naively, I assumed this was all a part of my pregnancy so I never said anything to my OB/GYN.
After welcoming my baby girl in 2016, my symptoms worsened. There was more excruciating pain and a lot more bleeding. I began to notice my stool was narrower and I was losing a lot of weight; I dropped 85 pounds. I ignored this for almost six months, figuring maybe it was hemorrhoids and I needed to give myself time for them to clear up.
A day before New Year’s Eve 2016, I got the scare of my life. I was in the middle of making a bottle when I felt the sudden urge “to go.” I ran to the bathroom and felt a release. I feared I had pooped myself, but I was dead wrong. It was nothing but blood. Despite all this blood, I refused to go to the hospital. I did, however, call my doctor after the New Year, when the office opened up again.
When I explained my symptoms to my doctor she kept saying, “That could be hemorrhoids, that could be hemorrhoids.” She did an exam and claimed she could see “two small hemorrhoids.” She referred me to a general surgeon for “hemorrhoid removal.”
The general surgeon said he didn’t even need to examine me. He knew my symptoms were the cause of something more serious than hemorrhoids. He referred me to a gastroenterologist in Washington, which was a little over a two hour drive away.
The GI performed a colonoscopy on May 30, 2017. I came out of anesthesia somewhat relieved that this whole nightmare could soon be behind me. He came into my room and all I remember hearing was “large suspicious mass.” A couple days later, on June 1, I got the call on the biopsy results; it was positive for cancer.
This began a long process, covering the state of Oregon and up to Washington to visit doctors, specialists, and to have several more colonoscopies and sigmoidoscopies to see if the mass could be removed at all. The thought was that it might be an overgrown polyp, but better biopsy results from a sigmoidoscopy confirmed it was indeed cancer.
I started chemotherapy and pelvic radiation in September of 2017 every day, five days a week. I travelled back and forth from my home to the treatment center, nearly a five-hour round trip. I was taking classes online, majoring in psychology and had to withdraw from college because the pain was so intense and the time spent traveling back and forth for treatments.
Radiation put me into menopause and squashed any chance of having another baby. To this day it is still a bitter pill to swallow. My uterus/vagina have shrunk, I have no libido, and sex is painful. This seems to be all a part of my “new normal.” I’m hoping with time, and maybe the right meds, things will get a pinch better. I did not realize just how extensive the collateral damage would be. It made going to the bathroom, even urinating, so much more painful. There really are no words to express how much worse the pain got when I already felt it was so bad to begin with.
A side effect of the chemo was that it gave me heart attack like symptoms. I have an arrhythmia and my oncologist explained that chemo tends to aggravate otherwise dormant conditions such as this. I was originally hooked up to a portable pump that delivered 5FU 24/7. I came in once a week to have the pump refilled. After about six weeks of that, my oncologist tried switching me to Oxaliplatin. That turned out to be too much for me – more pain and a fainting spell. So oral chemo was prescribed and I was on that for nearly five months until my first surgery in April.
I had my laparoscopic abdominoperineal resection (LAR) surgery on April 24, 2018. I had my entire rectum and the top 3/4 of my anus removed. The remaining end of my colon was crafted into a colon J-pouch. While I healed, I was given a nifty ileostomy bag. The bag was not fun. There were challenges getting used to changing it. In the first three weeks after my surgery, I dealt with so many leaks. I met with several ostomy nurses and eventually learned how to get my bags on and to stay put. I had my ileostomy reversal surgery on November 6, 2018.
I had more chemo, this time it was far more tolerable being that I wasn’t suffering with the effects of radiation at the same time. I suffer permanent damage from the chemo. I have neuropathy in my hands and from the knees down, making coordination, walking, balance, or performing any fine motor skill difficult. I still suffer “chemo brain” and have trouble recollecting things.
Things have been challenging, to say the least. Despite ALL this, I consider myself lucky. I am still alive! I recently celebrated my 31st birthday in January 2019. Cancer has taught me to be patient, to trust in the process, and to always look on the bright side. If there’s anything I hope readers take away from my story, it is to not let cancer dim your spirit. Persevere; you are a true warrior and you have a battle to win!RETURN TO FACES OF BLUE LEARN ABOUT YOUNG ADULT COLORECTAL CANCER