I celebrated my 53rd birthday on March 22, 2022. It’s a day I wasn’t expecting to see. There’s a reason our oncologists and surgeons don’t tell us everything about our cancer diagnoses all at once. If we knew, we might be tempted to give up and not go through with cancer treatment.
I was diagnosed with what would turn out to be stage IIIb rectal cancer on March 27, 2012, during a colonoscopy. It was five days after my 43rd birthday. I’d been having funky digestive symptoms for three months before the scope. When I saw blood in the toilet, I reached out to my primary care physician. I didn’t learn how close I had come to death until after 11 months of treatment.
My treatment regimen was fairly standard for stage IIIb rectal cancer. Five weeks of Xyloda combined with 28 rounds of radiation therapy. Surgery to remove the tumor and ultimately create an ostomy. Finally, 12 rounds of FOLFOX infused chemotherapy. In the years since treatment I’ve experienced a number of side effects, including neuropathy in my feet, non-pressure glaucoma, cavities from chemo, and several others. But, I’m still here.
It was my surgeon who explained that many other of his patients with my diagnosis experienced a recurrence or died during the first two years after diagnosis. Then, during my first follow up visit with my oncologist after treatment I learned that the cancer had invaded three of my lymph nodes and was still contained within the capsules of those nodes. If I had waited much longer to contact my doctor, there was a strong possibility that the cancer would have broken through and reached my bloodstream. Mine would be an entirely different story. By God’s grace, science, medical care and love, I survived. I was declared NED in May 2013.
In 2017, my surgeon bounded into the exam room and asked me, “what do you do when you get 20, 30 or 40 years of life you weren’t supposed to get?” He then answered his own question with “you go out and you live an amazing life.”
Ten years following my diagnosis, I have lived an amazing life. Because of cancer, my marriage is stronger than it ever was. I found a job I absolutely love, and I have amazing friends and family who continue to support me.
Given that I wasn’t supposed to survive and I’m living on house money, I’ve put a great deal of my time into serving as an advocate for cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and their families. I regularly share my story in the media, with Rotary Clubs and other organizations, and on my blog. I have an amazing life, and I look forward to what the next 10 years of survivorship look like.
I know that the thing people fear most is hearing the words, “you have cancer.” Since my diagnosis, I have made it a point to be completely honest and frank about every detail, literally the good, the bad and the ugly. I hope I’ve demystified colorectal cancer, cancer screening, treatment and the lifelong side effects that come with treatment. I also hope to inspire those diagnosed — and especially patients who require colostomies — to continue living every day with a sense of gratitude and purpose.