At the beginning of 2020, I started to experience major digestive issues. After eating I would head to the bathroom multiple times and I had an annoying pain in my stomach. I shared this concern with my sisters and my private nurse, Brandi, who witnessed my discomfort and strongly encouraged me to see the doctor.
I saw the doctor in early March. She diagnosed me with diverticulitis, prescribed a high fiber diet along with avoiding seeds (including corn and popcorn), ordered an ultrasound, and referred me to a gastroenterologist specialist.
The results of the ultrasound showed I have a fatty liver, which is caused by a high-fat diet. I was further advised to avoid fried foods. What? Give up chicken? Ok, my life is more important…. so fried foods were gone…kinda.
The specialist agreed with my physician, and as a measure of caution, ordered a colonoscopy. A what? Isn’t this for old people?
Then we went into lockdown. I was stressed. Work zoom calls were all day, every day (including Sunday mornings), I was homeschooling my gems, and there was so much uncertainty. I snacked, ate, drank wine, and thanks to an air fryer, still managed to squeeze in a hamburger to deal with the anxiety. Stomach pains still came and went, but I was home so I could lay down after bathroom trips to manage the pain.
In late April, I got a phone call. “Ms. Hogans, due to the pandemic, we will have to reschedule your colonoscopy.” I secretly cheered. My new date was set for July 9, 2020. As the weather changed, my eating habits changed. Fewer heavy foods, more lighter foods. Pasta salads, seafood… and burnt hotdogs hot off the grill. Stomach pains were still present, but I thought “I’ve got this…this is manageable. Not that serious.”
July came quickly. I got the prep. I was a little embarrassed to pick it up from the pharmacy. I didn’t want people to know I was having these issues. My prep day arrived. A clear liquid diet I could handle, but that prep… it is the most disgusting stuff I have ever tasted. Who made this? Why doesn’t this come in the form of a pill? I took a few more sips. Ick.
But instead of running to the bathroom to do what the prep is intended to do, I vomited. I drank a little more and the same thing happened. This prep was the absolute worst. I managed to get through one bottle and half the other. It wasn’t good enough for the specialist to see what was needed to see. So I had to reschedule my colonoscopy…. UGH.
In August, my grandmother died. Then we found out school would still be virtual. To combat the stress, I ate everything that I could: burgers, chips, fries, beer. One weekend, I met up with some friends for an outdoor birthday celebration. I ate a ton of fried foods accompanied with other celebratory foods. The next day not only did the stomach pains return, but I vomited the entire day. Couldn’t hold a thing down, not even water. I also had a low-grade fever. I thought I had COVID, but a few days later I was able to get COVID test, which was negative. I still couldn’t stomach food, but at this point, I was able to drink Gatorade. I was extremely weak and joined my work meetings with the camera off. It took a week to rebuild my strength. By day seven I was able to eat small portions of food. I told myself, “No more fried foods and I’ll be good.”
A week later, Chadwick Boseman died at the age of 43. WHAT? Colon cancer? How? He looked so healthy. Through tears, I watched countless news stories of how this disease is affecting the Black community, especially Black men. Really? Had I not been paying attention? Early detection is the key. Look for signs, blood in stool, weight loss…ok, I thought. I’ll look for the signs…but at this point, I needed to focus on changing my diet. Right then, my tummy hurt, but I didn’t have any other symptoms, so I was good. And Savannah Gunthrie said Black men, not women. So I’m good.
Two weeks later I was sick again, and then again the two weeks after that and another two weeks after that.
It was like Groundhog Day. I would eat something and a few hours later have stomach pains and a full day of vomiting, then another two days of being sick before I could eat a full meal. I was so weak. I couldn’t even open a jar of pasta sauce.
By late September, after three episodes, I noticed my clothes were fitting a little looser. I got excited because I had been working on a plan to lose the “pandemic pounds”. But then my excitement turned to worry when the scale indicated I was 17 pounds lighter. Outside of pregnancies, I had never lost that much weight before. Something wasn’t right. I was a little scared. What is this digestive issue? Maybe I needed to go Vegan.
For the first time, I shared my weight loss with my sisters and a few friends. All were concerned enough that when the next episode occurred, I was driven to the emergency room.
My “private nurse” Brandi thought I needed a full workup, so I thought that’s what I was going to get at the Emergency Room. I was wrong. I received IV fluids, nausea medication, and a stomach virus diagnosis. Even after I explained the ongoing symptoms, even after blood was found in my urine sample, there was still no mention of cancer. They recommended that I follow up with my gastro specialist.
I went home feeling better and thanks to the IV fluids, I was feeling a little stronger than the previous episodes. I also had a prescription for Ondansetron, a medication that I was very familiar with as I used it to alleviate morning sickness during my first pregnancy.
As directed, I followed up with the gastro specialist, whom I hadn’t seen since March. I felt like I should have brought an attorney because the specialist questioned me over and over again about my stomach pains, nausea, and weight loss. The questioning was like “So in March you said this, and now you’re saying this, so what happened?” I kept thinking:
You tell me?! You are the professional. That’s why I’m here. The end result was scheduling an upper endoscopy on top of my already scheduled colonoscopy. She also suggested I take Tums for stomach pain- even though I had been taking tums since February. I fought back the desire to say potty words to the medical professional, grabbed my referral, and left her office.
Two weeks passed and my prep day for the colonoscopy arrived. I sipped lemonade and ate gummy bears throughout the day (what fun). I took my first sip of the new prep around 5 pm. This prep was flavored with lemon and mixed with water. It wasn’t as disgusting as the one in July, and I was determined to get as cleaned out as possible. After six 8 ounce glasses and endless bathroom visits, I finished at 4 am. Now it was colonoscopy time.
As a busy mom of two, I always look forward to the opportunity to nap, even if it is IV induced, so I woke up a little refreshed from the procedure. The only thing I was worried about was if I had been adequately cleaned out. I asked the nurse, “Did everything go well?” She replied, “The doctor will be in in a few minutes.”
My heart began to race. I already felt defeated. How could I not get cleaned out this time? I did everything right. Then my doctor Melanie Jackson of Anne Arundel Gastroenterology Associates came in and told me she found a bleeding tumor that looked cancerous. I said it again, just to be sure. “So I have colon cancer?”
I did not react how my parents and pastor taught me to react. I cried. I told her I did not want to die. Dr. Jackson looked me in the eyes and assured me that “we” were going to get through this. She would put me in contact with the best surgeons and specialists to ensure a good outcome.
Four days later, I met Dr. Mari Madson. Dr. Madson explained anything and everything I needed to know about colon cancer, surgery, and recovery in such a detailed manner I walked out of her office thinking that I was a specialist! The only thing I didn’t like was her inability to immediately look inside my body and tell me what stage colon cancer I had, but I’m pretty sure if she could have, she would have. I was scheduled for a full-body scan the next day. The scan was necessary to determine if the cancer had spread too close to other organs in my body.
My whole world was praying for positive scan results. I prayed and fasted, fasted and prayed. God answered my prayers – the cancer had not spread, it was isolated to the colon. This result meant my cancer was sitting between stage 2 or stage 3.
I spent the next month preparing for my December 4th surgery date. I told a small number of people in my circle. It was never my intention to keep it a secret, but it was painful to retell the story. Also because colon cancer has not been friendly to many African Americans young and old alike, I was fearful of the varied reactions.
The surgery was successful. I was discharged the afternoon of December 6th, my youngest daughter’s 10th birthday. Filled with mixed emotions, I was so happy to be able to celebrate her double-digit birthday in person, but was somewhat tense, and incredibly sore from the surgery and uncertain. During the surgery, the tumor and 34 lymph nodes were removed. The tumor was quite large (close to 6 inches) and the surrounding nodes looked troubling. She would have to send the samples to the lab for testing. I still did not know my cancer stage; it would be a few more days. The day after my discharge, actress Natalie Reid died at the age of 53 from colon cancer. My sister looked at me and said, “This is not going to be your story.”
December 10th was a good day that became even greater. My sister and brother-in-love took such good care of me, and I was now relying only on Tylenol and Aleve for pain management. I was eating small portions of food and holding everything down. I had just finished a yummy bowl of chili when my phone rang. I looked down and saw Dr. Madson’s number. My heart rate accelerated; my hands were shaking so hard I could barely push the button to answer.
“Merry Christmas, Doreen.”
She always had a positive upbeat voice, but this time it was with exuberating joy. My pathology report had come back negative. The nodes all tested benign. “I was so worried about you Doreen, and this, this is a miracle. I have never seen anything like this.”
I wanted to run across the room and shout, but my stitches were real, so all I could do was cry. Look at what my faithful God can do. For a minute I didn’t think I was worthy of this blessing from God. But He thought so. The girls will have a mother. Tell the story. Help others. Be a blessing. Hallelujah!
My mother’s family is riddled with cancer. Upon further investigation, the biopsy displayed a genetic mutation. It looks like I have been tasked with carrying a cancer-type gene, formerly known as Lynch Syndrome, I am currently being monitored to determine what additional preventive measures are needed to live life as a cancer survivor. Diet and exercise play a large role. I have significantly scaled back on red meat and processed foods, including delicious bacon (I miss bacon). Veggies are included with every meal, unhealthy snacks have been replaced with fruits, but I can still have chicken… so God is good. Oh, I have also “experienced” some plant-based foods…it’s like when Bobby Brown was replaced with Johnny Gill… not bad… but it will take some getting used to!
I sit here today still in awe of this supernatural blessing, seven pounds heavier, and hopeful that my story encourages others in some way. If you are a member of the 45 and over club, please speak to your physician about scheduling a colonoscopy. The stomach pains, bathroom issues, weight loss, or decreased appetite we experienced in our 20’s and 30’s can take on a whole new meaning as we age. We all deserve to sparkle.