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Faces of Blue: Crystal Ortner

By November 19, 2021Faces of Blue
Faces of Blue Crystal Ortner

My story begins with the phrase, “it’s a coin toss.” This was my gastroenterologist’s response after my colonoscopy, when I asked if the mass found in my colon was malignant. I was only 34-years-old, and had been experiencing increasing abdominal pains that were beginning to become unbearable, and also  narrowing stools.

Faces of Blue CrystalI lived a healthy, active, organic, pescatarian lifestyle, and had no risk factors for colon cancer.  Despite having a family history of a grandmother who developed stage I colon cancer in her seventies, this was not considered a high risk factor. Therefore, doctors informed me I would not need my first colonoscopy screening until age 50, like the general population. Also, since my grandmother was a second degree relative, insurance would not cover the cost of the lifesaving initial colonoscopy that ultimately led to my diagnosis. To me, this was the first sign of many that a serious lack of knowledge and awareness existed within a flawed healthcare system. The rest of my story is filled with the ‘ups and downs’ of a battle I didn’t know I could survive.

After my initial colonoscopy, I underwent emergency surgery to remove the mass that would determine my fate. My only memory was the sound of my mother’s voice in my ear upon waking up… “it’s cancer.” Except it wasn’t just cancer… I had stage IV colon cancer. It had aggressively spread throughout my peritoneum, to the extent I required chemotherapy, more surgery, and an ostomy bag to reroute intestinal output.

What devastated me most was my children. The thought of leaving them motherless haunted me to my core. The idea broke me and fractured my soul, but left me with an unwavering will to survive. I endured six harrowing chemotherapy treatments followed by a massive HIPEC surgery including cytoreduction, colon resection and removal of my appendix and gallbladder. After the surgery, my surgeon said all the cancer was gone, that it was miraculous, and she had never seen such an outcome. It was, however, suggested I do six more chemotherapy sessions (despite being declared No Evidence of Disease (NED)) as part of the typical recommended treatment protocol.

After my second chemotherapy treatment, my bowel perforated, which led to septic shock and a two-month hospitalization stay due to numerous medical complications. Eventually, I recovered and a few months later they reversed my ostomy.

Faces of Blue Crystal and girlsI enjoyed sixteen months of being cancer-free, until my world came crashing down again this past summer when I experienced a recurrence. Deja-vu lingered in the air, now knowing the battle that lay ahead. Another six rounds of chemotherapy, a second HIPEC surgery and removal of my ovaries, to where the cancer had spread.

After chemotherapy, my body and mind were ravaged. Chemotherapy is like death coursing through your veins, killing everything in its path. It took my hair, my energy, caused unrelenting nausea, and resulted in twenty pounds of weight loss.  It took away my ability to eat, time away with my children and left me lifeless, in bed, cared for by others. I no longer recognized myself. As I slipped away into sickness, my husband, family and friends all picked up the pieces left behind. My heart lay broken for my children and the deteriorating mother they saw before their eyes.

In addition to chemotherapy, I did acupuncture, juicing, massage, meditation and imagery. I visualized the disease within me slowly fade away as light filled every space. Despite feeling plenty of fear, sadness, and anger, I tried my hardest to fill my body with peace, love, forgiveness and the conviction that I will survive. Chemotherapy was just one piece of my treatment; the rest was diet, mind, body, and soul. I wanted to heal in every way possible. If my body had been made susceptible to such illness, then I knew it was within my power to make myself susceptible to wellness. And so I grasped to all the hope I could, knowing I was not alone and had an army at my back. I know with certainty I could not have survived had it not been for my husband, family, amazing friends, immense community support, and an amazing team of doctors and nurses.

Faces of Blue Crystal at HospitalI emerged from the darkness incredibly grateful, but… changed. I am still crippled by the anxiety of each appointment, each scan, each blood test, plaguing my life with the possibility of recurrence nagging at the corners of my mind. The fight is over, and yet it never will be. That is the life of a cancer patient and I am thankful that I have amazing family, friends, community and a medical team to guide me through this journey and know that anything is truly possible! I am so fortunate to have an amazing army behind me.  I want everyone to know that you are never alone, that we will fight for you, that we have your back, and that we are stronger together!

My heart will forever be grateful to all those who came to my rescue. I am broken and yet I am also whole. It is through the cracks of my brokenness, however, that the light can shine through.

I have miraculously fought my way back to No Evidence of Disease (NED) once again, while I continue to recover. My hair, while short, is starting to grow back. My body, frail and thin, is slowly gaining strength. At least now, I can once again see the light. A reminder that I can heal again, and that I am never alone in this journey.

Faces of Blue Crystal OrtnerAs a mother fighting cancer, my children are my number one priority and motivation. Our family experienced the deep trauma that comes with a cancer diagnosis. As a result, I also hope to provide other parents fighting cancer help in how to emotionally support their children as they face this battle. Because cancer doesn’t just affect the patient… it ripples through their life, affecting everyone they know and having an especially deep impact on their closest loved ones, with our children being the most vulnerable.

I want other young parents with cancer to know they are not alone, and that we are stronger together. I have walked that path, and am still standing. I want them to know that there is help, and to never feel ashamed to reach out, ask and seek support. I want them to know about all the resources out there and communities that have their back. I want them to know anything is possible and to never give up and cherish every day with their children. I want them to know they are deeply loved and worthy.

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