April 2011

Sponsored by Cut the Cheese

Vanessa’s Colondar Bio

Vanessa Smith had never had any health problems, but one night when she passed a large amount of blood, her doctor told her she needed a colonoscopy. She was afraid to have the procedure, but after two months she was passing blood daily and knew she couldn’t put it off any longer.

On Election Day 2008, Vanessa was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. She was devastated, but also felt hopeful as she watched Barack Obama change the future for African-Americans everywhere.

Knowing that African-Americans have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer and are more likely to die from the disease, Vanessa also wants to change the future. She encourages everyone to learn the facts and get checked before it’s too late.

Vanessa’s story

For as long as I can remember, I was never particularly concerned with my health. For years I consistently received great results for every regular doctor visit, physical, blood draw and exam I had, and I almost never came down with the typical seasonal illnesses like the flu or even the common cold. I didn’t do anything specific to remain healthy either. I kept an average diet, rarely exercised, but somehow always maintained a healthy weight. I literally took my health for granted, and I felt lucky I was able to do so. I even went so far as to jokingly comment to my sister a couple of years ago that I was in fact lucky that I was never diagnosed with any serious condition. Both my mother and my 2 older sisters were diagnosed with autoimmune diseases in their mid 20′s and 30′s. I always felt that I had dodged a bullet with the fact that I’d never faced anything similar to their health issues. I remember telling my sister lightheartedly – “Watch, I’ll be the one who will be diagnosed with some type of cancer in the next few years”. If I had known then that my “prediction” would actually come true – I would never have joked about such a thing.

They say colon cancer is a silent killer because there are typically no symptoms. I agree with that statement because I had no symptoms at all – not until the night of August 17th 2008. The first incident when I was aware that something was terribly wrong came suddenly and unexpectedly. I was getting ready for bed, doing my usual routine of brushing my teeth, washing my face, putting my hair into a ponytail, etc. I drank a lot of water earlier in the evening and decided to use the bathroom one last time before I turned in for the night. What happened next was one of the scariest, most unexpected and shocking things that has ever happened to me physically. I sat down and before I began to do anything, I felt liquid coming out of me. I had not yet begun to “go” – I wasn’t even pushing, this was just literally flowing out of my body and into the toilet. I looked into the toilet and was more than shocked to see that the water was turning red from the blood coming from me. I knew I was not menstruating yet; I was not urinating, so this blood was coming from a place where blood is not typically supposed to come from. The amount of blood seemed to be immense, though it was probably not as much as I assumed. It was enough to upset me to the point of calling my mother at 11pm crying hysterically about what I had just experienced. My mother is a nurse and has always had a calming effect on me whenever I’ve been worried about my health (which up until that point was not often). Through tears I told her that I had just passed a large amount of blood from my bottom and had no idea why. She calmed me down, telling me that there was really nothing I could do about it at the moment, I should relax, it was probably a hemorrhoid since I sometimes experienced constipation, and to make sure I called my doctor first thing in the morning. I eventually calmed down and told her I would do exactly that.

I went to see my primary physician the next morning. I told the office that I had passed a fairly large amount of blood the night before and wanted to be seen as soon as possible. They asked me to come in immediately. I remember walking into the waiting room, which was very crowded that morning with patients waiting to be seen. After signing in, it was less than 2 minutes that I waited before I was called back in to see the doctor. At that point, I knew this was potentially more serious than I expected.

My doctor explained that it was most likely hemorrhoids or an abrasion of some sort given my history with constipation, and gave me a brief examination. She confirmed she saw evidence of blood, but did not see any hemorrhoids or cuts or abrasions or anything of that sort. While this alarmed her, she reassured me that it was probably nothing serious like cancer. She told me I was in good health and my age was also a plus so I should not worry. She did advise me to see a gastroenterologist as soon as possible because she felt it needed to be looked into further. Bleeding from your rectum is definitely not normal.

A week later, I saw the gastroenterologist who also examined me – a bit more invasively. He told me, as my primary doctor had, that he did not see anything besides evidence of some bleeding. He advised me to schedule a colonoscopy as soon as possible, as this was the only way we were really going to determine where the blood was coming from. I remember him specifically telling me that it was probably nothing serious, however he has diagnosed people in their 20′s with cancer so I needed to get this procedure scheduled as soon as possible.

It took me 2 months to summon the courage to have the colonoscopy. The idea of the procedure frightened me. I had always been uncomfortable talking about “bowel issues” with anyone besides my mother, and the actual exam sounded terrifying to me. I didn’t want to go through with it and actually scheduled one and cancelled it about 2 weeks before I was to have it out of my sheer anxiety over it. By October, I was now passing small amounts of blood on a daily basis, so I knew I could not put it off any longer. I scheduled my colonoscopy for Nov 3rd and stuck with that date.

The prep was at best, unpleasant. It wasn’t the fact that I had to go on a liquid diet the day before the procedure, or the fact that I had to fast the day of the procedure. It was the laxatives and the solution I had to ingest to completely empty my system. For anyone who is planning on having a colonoscopy for the first time, I just advise to stay home and have a bathroom available to you at all times.

I was nervous as the hospital staff got me ready for the procedure. My mother was there with me and I was happy about that, still I did not know what to expect and was scared. I remember asking the nurses at least 3 times to make sure I didn’t wake up during the procedure, and whether they could give me extra meds to ensure I didn’t feel anything. The nurses reassured me that I was going to be ok and not to worry. I would either be asleep or so relaxed that I wouldn’t really know what was going on. The nurses were right. I remember them asking me to turn on my left side and asking me whether I was comfortable and then everything went black.

I slowly opened my eyes and realized I was back in the recovery room with my mother. I saw that the gastroenterologist who performed the colonoscopy had just walked out of the room and I looked at my mother. I’ll never forget the expression on her face. She had tears in her eyes. I slowly, sleepily asked her what was wrong and my mother calmly explained to me that they found a large polyp in my ascending colon and a tumor in my sigmoid colon. It was a bleeding tumor, which explained why I was passing blood so much and while the gastroenterologist could not tell with 100% accuracy whether the tumor was malignant or not, he was pretty certain that it was. He had given my mother pictures of my colon taken during the colonoscopy and one of the pictures specifically showed the tumor. I glanced at it and turned away. I did not want to see it anymore. My mother has been a nurse for the last 30 years – 10 of which she worked on a cancer unit in a hospital. She told me she agreed with the gastroenterologist – that the tumor did look malignant. I was still sleepy from the drugs and it did not register to me the potential seriousness of the situation. I just got up and put my clothes back on and wanted to go home.

I spent the remainder of the day in a sort of daze. I did not know whether I had cancer or not and I refused to worry about it until it was confirmed. Still, there was a small part of me that was terrified and had no idea how I would cope with the news if it was in fact cancer. I prayed and went about my normal activities, making dinner for my son, helping him with his homework and watching television before going to bed.

The next day, I received a call from the gastroenterologist to give me the results from the biopsy. He confirmed that the tumor was malignant. I had colon cancer. From that moment on I went into a state of both panic and shock. It was almost as if it was not real – I didn’t know how to react. I felt worried and frightened, but it had not sunk in yet. I calmly asked him a few questions and he told me he would have my primary physician refer me to a surgeon that day. I thanked him and hung up the phone.

Oddly enough, the next person I called was my boss. I told her that I just found out that I had cancer and would not be back into the office for the remainder of the day. I asked her to please have someone from the HR department contact me about FMLA because I knew I would soon need to take a lot of time off of work. It wasn’t until I called my mother moments later that I broke down in sobs, telling her the gastroenterologist confirmed it was cancer. I am so glad that my son was not home at the time and was in school because that was the moment I completely lost it. I sobbed hysterically into the phone to my mom, telling her I was scared and didn’t know whether I could handle this. My mother always has a calming effect on me no matter how upset I am and she let me cry and answered my questions and listened to my concerns. Once she knew I had calmed down and would be ok, she let me go so I could compose myself before my son came home from school.

That night was Nov. 4th and I watched President Obama win the election and ultimately become the first African American to be elected as President of the United States. While I had spent the majority of the day crying and worrying and stressed, I honestly can say for a few moments as I watched the historical event on television, I completely forgot that I was just diagnosed with cancer only hours before. It was truly an amazing event that I never thought I would see in my lifetime.

From the moment my diagnosis was confirmed, my life changed dramatically on every level imaginable. When I went to work the next day, my eyes still a bit puffy from all of the crying I had done the day before, I was receiving calls from my doctor, the hospital, and the scheduling center to get me in ASAP for a CT scan. I had appointments for blood draws, meeting the surgeon who would perform my surgery in 2 weeks, speaking with my oncologist and his team about what to expect after surgery. It was so much happening so suddenly and all at once, I didn’t even have time to get nervous or scared. My schedule was quickly filling up and as the reality of it all sunk in deeper with each passing day; I began to take great comfort in normalcy.

I’d met with the surgeon, so I knew what to anticipate from the surgery. I was to have a colon resection and he anticipated I would have about 3 feet of my large intestine removed. I was scared that I may have to wear a colostomy bag. He was not able to confirm whether I would need one or not, but told me that the chances were that I wouldn’t need one. My employers remained supportive as I planned a leave of absence for at least 4-6 weeks. My mother was with me for each appointment and the plan was that she would be with me the day of the surgery and stay with me in the hospital while I recovered. Unfortunately it didn’t happen as we had planned. 3 days before my surgery was scheduled, my mother had a diabetic emergency and was rushed to the ER. She went into cardiac arrest and had respiratory failure and was recessitated twice. She stayed in the ICU unconscious for 5 days. I came to visit her 2 days before I was to have my own surgery. She was not awake and was breathing with the assistance of a ventilator. I held her hand and cried. I was more concerned about her than myself. Just as my cancer diagnosis came unexpectedly, this tragic turn of events came as a shock as well.

One of my sisters came and stayed by our mother’s bedside, and my oldest sister immediately came from MN to IL to be with me during my own surgery. The day before my surgery, I had to take a combination of very strong antibiotics and again go through the “prep” by emptying everything in my bowels. I couldn’t eat or really drink anything besides the prep solution and found that the antibiotics were making me nauseated and I was not able to hold down the liquid. I couldn’t drink it. Calling the surgeon, I was encouraged to keep trying to get it down. I did try but still could not drink the solution without getting sick. Calling the surgeon a second time, I was told to not drink it, that I would be given salt water enemas at the hospital before the surgery the next day.

At the hospital, with my big sister with me, I was given two enemas. They were defiantly not fun. I’d never had one and I hope that I never have another in the future. Once they felt I was “cleaned out” enough, I was prepped for the surgery by nurses and aids and wheeled into the surgery room. Despite the fact that I was nervous and frightened, my thoughts were still on my mother who was in another hospital 30 miles away and still unconscious in the ICU. I prayed to God for the both of us.

I remember waking up at one point – I believe it was shortly after the surgery was over and I was on my side and there were several people around me. I didn’t know what was happening or where I was, my mind was foggy from the anesthesia, but I remember feeling intense pain. I started saying “I’m in pain, I’m in pain,” and I heard one of the medical staff closest to me saying “patient is awake” and then everything went black again.

I woke up in my hospital room on the cancer unit of the hospital. My sister was there waiting for me. She said the surgery went perfectly, I didn’t need a colostomy bag, and I was going to be ok. I immediately asked about our mom. She said there was no change in her condition. I was happy to know that at least she was still alive. My oncologist soon came in and was able to stage my cancer. By then I understood how they staged colon cancer. There are 4 stages and within the first 3 stages, there are another 3 sub-stages. The oncologist explained that along with the tumor and a polyp, they removed 16 lymph nodes. Out of those 16, 9 of them were “involved”. I was crushed to learn that I was at stage 3C, which in my mind then, was terrible news. That was the closest to stage 4. Stage 4 was considered “terminal” and I was absolutely devastated by the news. My sister was with me and she held my hand and I was so comforted knowing she was right beside me through all of this. Back home, she had a full time job, a husband, and 3 kids but here she was with me for the next 5 days while I recovered because our mother could not be.

The next day, we found out that my mother was awake and doing well. She was moved from the ICU and taken to another unit of the hospital. When my mother woke up, she was a bit confused, as she had literally been unconscious for 5 days. A nurse told her that her daughter (me) had her surgery the day before and it went very well. My mother cried when she was told this, partly because she realized that she wasn’t with me while I went through the surgery as we originally planned, and partly because she was happy to learn I was ok. I was happy to talk to her later that day. She sounded out of breath and weak, but she told me we were both going to be ok and we would see each other soon.

I was told that I couldn’t leave the hospital until I was either able to pass gas or move my bowels. For the first two days after surgery, I did not really eat anything. I was put on a liquid diet and slowly worked up to soft solids. The nurses encouraged me to walk around the unit as much as possible. With my sister’s help I did, but it was difficult because I was weak and I was also hooked up to an IV and had a urinary catheter so at first we didn’t walk very far. I was happy to get out of the hospital bed and outside of the room. Those were the highlights of my days.

One of the lower moments during my recovery in the hospital was a very bad reaction I had to an anti-nausea drug I was given. A nurse was giving me the drug Compazine through my IV and I immediately began feeling what I can only describe as a very intense and disturbing sensation that I had to move – that I was literally crawling out of my skin. As weak as my body was, I immediately jumped out of the hospital bed. I felt this uncontrollable and overwhelming need to move and my heart was racing. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I began walking; pacing the room in near hysterics, still connected to the IV and the catheter, and was unable to stop. I was asking for oxygen because I felt I couldn’t get enough air. I now know the reaction I experienced was severe Akathisia, which is a syndrome usually caused by certain drugs and gives the patient a feeling of intense and extreme inner restlessness and anxiety. I was panicking and not understanding what was happening to me. My sister got me to sit down, but this caused the “crawling out of my skin” sensation to get worse. Another nurse was brought in and explained to my sister that I was experiencing a side effect from the Compazine and would be ok. I don’t remember much of what the nurse told me because my mind and heart were racing and I was in complete panic, but somehow I was able to get back into bed and given Benadryl to help me calm down and sleep. I remember that night I lay there and repeated over and over to myself “God please help me” until I fell asleep.

The next day I felt 100% better. I had slept 11 hours and was completely refreshed. I had a sponge bath with the help of a nurse aide and had more energy and strength then I’d had since the surgery. Our mother’s condition was improving and I was finally able to eat soft solids. For some reason I was so happy about that. I never thought that having jello and chicken soup would make me that happy.

By now I was able to move and walk easier. My strength was building and I felt better when I was being active. I left the hospital room and walked around the unit as often as I could and once the catheter was removed, it was that much easier to get around. I tried to spend as much time as I could out of the hospital room.

At one point, my oncologist brought in a nurse who explained to me that I had the option of having a mediport inserted into my upper chest. Since I was looking at having 6 months of chemotherapy, the mediport was a device that would make receiving my chemo treatments easier. It consisted of a small portal with an attached catheter that is surgically inserted underneath my skin, just beneath the collar bone and was connected to a vein that allowed medicine to move quickly throughout my body. It was considered an easier way to receive medication or have blood drawn as I would not have to get stuck by a needle as much. I was told it was an uncomplicated, outpatient procedure and that a lot of chemo patients preferred the mediport rather than having an IV needle inserted into their arm for hours while they received treatment. I agreed to have the mediport inserted.

My mother was released from the hospital the day before I was. My sister who had stayed with my mother drove her out to the hospital where I’d been recovering. I cannot tell you how happy I was to see my mom. We both cried. I was so happy to see her alive and well and I’m sure she felt the same about me. My little brother who at the time was in the Army received an emergency leave and was there with us and we had a small family reunion in my hospital room. It seemed like years since my mom, 2 sisters and my brother had been together in the same room, and while it was due to unfortunate circumstances that brought us all together, I was happy that we were.

That night I was able to pass my bowels and was discharged the next day. I couldn’t wait to get back home. I felt pretty good, though I had lost a lot of weight and still didn’t really have an appetite, but I was doing great otherwise. I was receiving calls and emails from family and friends who were all supporting me and praying for me. I started a Caringbridge site where I was able to update how I was doing and found that it was pretty therapeutic in doing so. My sister stayed with me for a few more days but had to go back home to her job and kids. I will never be able to express to her how much her being with me through the whole experience meant to me.

My recovery from the surgery was quick. I was back to work 3 weeks after my colon resection. While physically I felt good and got through my days with little or no fatigue or pain, emotionally I realized I was not ready to be back. I was having a hard time getting back into my normal routine there, and if I could do it again, I would have given myself at least another week of recovery before going back to work.

I was soon back in the hospital to have my mediport insertion surgery. I went to the hospital with no worries, as I understood the procedure to be a fairly quick and easy one and I knew I would go home that same day. After waking up from the procedure however, I noticed something was not quite right. First, I had bandages on both sides of my upper chest instead of just one side. I also immediately realized that it was painful to breathe. A nurse explained to me that the surgeon had first tried to insert the mediport on my left side, but was unable to do so and inserted it on my right side instead. The insertion was successful, but it had been a difficult procedure for the surgeon. I explained to her that I felt pain when I inhaled and asked whether that was to be expected. She told me no, and had me stay in the recovery room for a bit to monitor how I felt. After an hour I still felt the same, so they took x-rays of my chest to make sure my lungs were functioning properly. The x-ray showed nothing unusual and I was discharged with some pain killers.

At home that night, I still found it painful and difficult to breathe, but since the hospital x-rays showed nothing was wrong, I figured it would go away on its own. That night however, I fell asleep propped up on about 8 pillows so I could sleep in an upright position because I somehow feared that if I lay on my back, I might stop breathing.

The next day I felt worse, not better. I called the surgeon’s office and was told to go immediately to the ER – that there was nothing they could do. Grudgingly, I had my boyfriend drive to the emergency room with me. It was only after I had been examined and had another x-ray of my lungs taken that I was told what was wrong. The ER doctor explained to me that I had a pneumothorax (my right lung had collapsed) and a hemothorax (blood or fluid in my left lung). I asked whether this was life threatening and he told me not yet. He very hesitantly explained to me that I would need a tube thoracostomy (a chest tube), in my right lung. He said this almost sympathetically and at the time I didn’t understand why he told me this as if it were bad news. If it was going to help me breathe normally, then so be it. When he told me that I needed to be admitted back into the hospital and was looking at 5-6 days to recover, I became upset. I called my mother and explained what was happening. She was not happy that they had sent me home the day before due to the severity of the condition I was now in. She immediately came to the hospital to stay with me. My boyfriend left to pick up my son from school and stay with him at home.

I was so upset. I didn’t want to be back in the hospital and away from my son for a week! I thought the mediport insertion was supposed to be the easy procedure and now it was turning into a nightmare. I asked the ER doctor why this wasn’t detected the day before when they looked at my lungs through an x-ray and found nothing wrong. He told me that they probably couldn’t see it yet – that it took a while for the condition to get to the point that it currently was. He told me that they would have the radiology department perform the chest tube insertion and not there in the ER because the radiology department would use a thinner tube than the ER would and that would be to my benefit. Again, I didn’t understand what difference it would make, but I took his words for what they were and was admitted back into the hospital.

My mother arrived shortly after and I was so happy she was there with me. She herself had made an almost 100% recovery from the previous month and told me she would stay with me until I was discharged. Within 30 minutes or so, I was taken to the radiology department to have my chest tube put in. Now, I had just recovered from a major surgery and had given birth 10 years ago; I even say this as I look back on the 6 months of chemotherapy that I went through. The chest tube insertion was the worst part of my entire cancer experience as a whole. I wasn’t really told what was going to happen except that it was a fairly short procedure which I would be awake for and given local anesthesia to ease the pain of the procedure. I was told to lay on my left side, as they needed to insert the tube to my right lung and was assured by an attending nurse I would be given something for the pain. I do not believe I was given proper anesthesia because the chest tube insertion was absolutely the most painful thing I have physically ever felt in my life. It was like torture because I remember immediately starting to cry and begging them to stop but it was as if they weren’t listening to me. No one in the room reassured me, or stopped the procedure to administer more pain medication to make it easier on me. My cries were falling on to deaf ears and I sobbed and begged them to stop through the entire process. Afterwards, I was a bit traumatized and I eventually did make an official complaint that I felt completely ignored while the chest tube was inserted. I remember telling my mother that I know now what it feels like to be stabbed, because that is literally what happened. A tube about the width of a finger was inserted (forcefully) into my chest wall causing my lung to re-expand – which is also painful when it does. Once the tube is properly inserted, it is secured to my body and is connected to a one way valve or vacuum and a water valve device. I received chest x-rays daily as they monitored my recovery on both lungs. I was connected to this device and had to take it with me everywhere I went (which wasn’t far considering I was in the hospital and also connected to an IV). I remember my boyfriend bringing my son in to visit me and moments before they were to enter my room, I accidentally pulled out my IV, causing blood to spread everywhere. Luckily there were 2 nurses in the room with me and I explained that my 10 year old son would be walking into the room any minute and I didn’t want him to see me covered in blood. One of the nurses stopped my boyfriend and son as they opened the door to enter my room, explaining that I was getting cleaned up and would be ready in a few minutes. The other nurse quickly helped me change into a different gown, and gave me fresh sheets and cleaned all of the blood from my arm and on the floor (there was a lot of blood) and reinserted my IV. Finally I was ready and my son and boyfriend were allowed into the room. I was overjoyed to see him and reassured him that I was ok and would be home very soon.

By the time I was discharged, I had made sure my feelings regarding my experience with the chest tube insertion were documented and understood by the appropriate hospital administrative staff, and I also spoke with the surgeon who performed the mediport insertion, which caused the condition I was currently in. He was the same surgeon who performed my colon resection surgery and did an amazing job at it and for that I was eternally grateful to him, but I wanted to let him know that this current experience was traumatizing (on top of just the fact that I was battling cancer) and he apologized to me, which is all I wanted and needed to hear.

I began chemotherapy in early January of 2009. My “chemo cocktail” was FOLFOX, which is currently the standard for treating colon cancer. I was also lucky enough to qualify and take part in a clinical study and received an additional drug, Erbitux, which I received once a week. For the next 6 months, every single Tuesday I spent at the Cancer Center at Rush Copley Medical and received my treatments. By now I was happy I had the mediport because it made the entire process of getting set up for my treatments easier. While I received the Erbitux drug once a week, I received the FOLFOX in addition every other week. So every other Tuesday I was given a pump that I had to carry around with me for 2 days while it slowly administered one of the chemo drugs over 46 hours. The pump device was concealed by a “fanny pack” that I typically wore around my waist and slept with next to me on the bed. At work, I was sometimes embarrassed by it – especially when it began beeping loudly when the tube was tangled or the transfusion was over. I was always so happy to return it back to the hospital and be unhooked from the device. I began calling every other Thursday my “long shower day” because I was unable to take showers during the 2 days I carried the pump with me.

I can honestly say that the 6 months of chemo were not as horrible as I had anticipated. I had the typical side effects of nausea, fatigue, hair loss (not completely) and sensitivity to cold temperatures. I could not tolerate any form of spicy foods. I also remember not drinking or eating anything colder than room temperature. I had sores in my mouth and on my tongue that made even brushing my teeth painful. I was given a special toothbrush that had extra-soft bristles and I was so grateful for that. I also used a mouth rinse that numbed the pain. One of the side effects that I found to be the most hard to deal with was a rash that developed from the Erbitux drug. The rash was severe and was all over my face and my chest and back. It made my skin extremely sensitive and painful to touch, but also it made me feel so self-conscious. As superficial as that sounds, I looked like someone who had a severe case of horrible acne over my entire face. I found myself being embarrassed to look people in the eye at work and tried to hide my face with my thinning hair as much as I could. Several times I told my oncologist that I was considering stopping the drug, which he fully supported if I chose to do so, but then I would rationalize it to myself that 6 months of this is worth the attempt to save or prolong my life and I stayed on the drug until the end of my treatments.

While going through chemo, I went to work every day, except on days when I received my treatments. I believe I called in sick 2 or 3 times during those 6 months. My boss and management were extremely supportive of me and commended me on continuing to work as much as I could despite going through chemotherapy. I couldn’t have done it any other way. I didn’t want my life to come to a standstill while I underwent treatment. If I was able to get out of bed, take a shower and make my son breakfast, then I was able to go to work. I wanted my life to remain as normal as possible. I had good and bad days, but for the most part, I got through it without any major difficulties and for that I am grateful. I know other cancer patients suffer so much more while undergoing treatment.

I received so much love and support and prayers from my friends and family and that is what got me through my darkest moments. One of the best things that happened out of this was that some friends from my high school gathered together and held a benefit concert in my honor. I went to a performing arts high school in Chicago, so my classmates and I were singers, actors, visual artists and dancers. The benefit consisted of performances, a silent auction, food and drinks and believe me tears readily flowed that night. It was an amazing event and a wonderful reunion. Most of my old classmates I hadn’t seen in 17 years, and meeting their spouses and children and seeing how we’ve all become adults was incredible. Many of the friends who attended flew in from out of state for the benefit, and to this day I still get choked up thinking about what an amazing thing they did for me. My family was with me and I was surrounded by people who loved and supported me. I’d never had anyone do anything like that for me before and I know that I am absolutely blessed because of it.

This may sound crazy, but I believe that getting cancer was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The reason I say this is because my outlook on life and how I feel and treat the people in my life has dramatically changed for the better. I appreciate so much more – everything and everyone in my life that I’d always had taken for granted before. Before my diagnosis, I was prone to self-pity, depression and a “why does this always happen to me” type of attitude and I often went through my days dragging myself along as if living my life was the most tedious thing in the world. I would avoid people and social activities and still held on to bitter feelings toward certain people in my life. Now after going through this past year, I feel so lucky to be here and to have the friends and family that I do. Everything I used to think and feel about my life and the tediousness of it I now feel blessed to go through. Every time I am stuck in traffic and running late for work, I remind myself that it is just a small inconvenience in the scheme of things. Whenever I have a particularly hard day at work, I remind myself that not only am I so lucky to have a job, but to have so much support from them while I went through this past year, I know I’m blessed and thankful. Every time my son hugs me or tells me he loves me I thank God that I am alive to hear him say it and for allowing me to continue to be his mother. I tell my family I love them more often. I have mended fences with people whom I’ve had bitter endings with and thanked them for talking to me. Life is so precious to me now, as hard as it can be. Every day that I wake up I feel happy that I have another day to live my life without bitterness, or self pity parties and cold feelings for others. No one is promised tomorrow. No one. So while it’s an overused cliche, I feel strongly about the truth behind it – live your life as if it is your last.

Right now I feel amazing. I have changed my diet drastically and exercise as much as possible. I just had my one year colonoscopy and am happy to say that everything was clear. Soon I will have my CT scans to make sure the chemo was effective. I am nervous about it, yes, but I also am at peace with whatever outcome happens. I see life now as a gift – and your happiness is what you make of that gift. You can live it in fear or hatred or negativity. You can walk away from opportunity or obstacles, or you can find solitude in the fact that you’re alive, that you have people who care about you and that you are stronger and more capable than you can really ever know. Feel lucky to have another day to hear your child’s voice, or to tell your significant other that you love them. Having cancer has humbled me – and I can honestly say it is a wonderful way to live your life.