February 2007 – Don’t Take Life Too Seriously
Queah Habern | Houston, TX | Diagnosed at 27 | Survivor since 2005
Terry Miller | Middlefield, OH | Diagnosed at 49 | Survivor since 1999
Queah Habern and Terry Miller may not look like they have much in common, but colorectal cancer doesn’t discriminate by age, skin color or gender.
Although African-Americans have a higher incidence of colorectal cancer, Queah never knew that she would need to be concerned about it. After months of misdiagnosis, she ended up in surgery for appendicitis but was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer just two days later. Upon finishing chemotherapy, she started sharing her story to prove that you don’t have to be a 50-year-old white guy to get colorectal cancer.
Terry looks more like what people expect to see when they think about colorectal cancer, and he was at even greater risk because he had a family history. He finally got a colonoscopy after having rectal bleeding and was diagnosed with stage I colon cancer. After surgery, Terry returned to his job as an assistant principal and athletic official, which helps keep him young. He enjoys telling his story and showing his scar to co-workers and students to show that you never know who colorectal cancer has affected.
Queah and Terry are both passionate about how they live their lives, but try not to take themselves too seriously. They both want people to know that early detection and a sense of humor are important tools in beating cancer.
Terry’s Story as told by Terry:
My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1995 at the age of 72. It was on the right side just above the appendix. My older brother and I were alerted that we both needed colonoscopies before we turned 50. My famous quote was “nobody’s going to stick that hose up my butt”; after all, I am a guy. That’s a very familiar thing to hear when a group of guys get together as most will start to squirm at the thought. To say I was a bit apprehensive is a gross understatement!
In 1997, I began to notice some abdominal pain, mostly on the left side. Accompanying this were periods of diarrhea. I found out later that some of this pain was caused by gallstones. On February 19, 1999, I was stricken with severe pain radiating across my abdomen. Later I found out that this was probably a gall bladder attack. Three days later, severe cramping returned while I was at school. A trip to the bathroom resulted in more diarrhea, but this time it was accompanied by a significant amount of blood. I was in a state of shock. Immediately I left school and drove myself to the ER for an exam. Following tests and blood work, the ER doctor told me “it’s time for a colonoscopy”. I managed to put the test off until spring break as I hate to miss school for anything… after all, the doctor said it was probably colitis or something other than that other “C” word.
On the morning of April 6th, I found myself in the darkened room while the test was conducted. I knew I was in big trouble when I awoke to find my wife in the room with me. Without speaking a word, I knew that the doctor’s message was one I didn’t want to hear. He had discovered what appeared to him to be a malignant tumor on the right side above the appendix… the same spot as my mother’s. The doctor’s attitude was that it was probably malignant, but at an early stage. His reassurances didn’t make me feel any better. A biopsy was completed and his casual diagnosis was correct. Once it was diagnosed, I couldn’t get into the operating room fast enough. I had surgery two weeks later.
I went back to work for seven days between the end of my spring break and the surgery to get my affairs in order. I was an assistant principal, so I had to prepare an administrative intern to assume my position for whatever period of time that I was absent. I prepared our staff with a memo explaining my diagnosis and the surgery I was to face. I didn’t want rumor to spread about what was wrong with me. I heard from one student that he had heard that I had brain cancer and I was going to die. I tried to keep my sense of humor sharp by telling him that my rumored demise was grossly overstated.
My operation occurred on April 20, 1999… the same day as the tragedy at Columbine High School. Ironically, my surgery began at 1:25 p.m. That corresponded to the start of the shooting. I was informed of the tragic events early the next morning following my operation. I spent the next week reading the paper and watching CNN. The high school in which I worked experienced many of the same chaotic problems that seemed so prevalent throughout the country. In a sense I am glad that I didn’t have to experience the post-Columbine days of rumors and confusion. However, many of the same problems arose following 9/11/01. When I did return to school five weeks later, things were getting back to normal. I went back to work on May 25th. I returned to umpiring summer softball late in June. Things returned to normal and I regained my strength and endurance gradually throughout the summer.
One of my fondest memories that I couldn’t believe was the outpouring of love and support I received from my staff. I really believe that I received more cards than there were staff members (72) in the building. I was brought to tears when I returned to school. That had been my fifth year at that school. I was well-established and my efforts to support them in their very difficult roles were highly appreciated.
Once staff members have found out my story, I have become the “go-to-guy” when one of them is facing “the scope”. My role has always been to reassure them and to downplay any unpleasantness. The benefits of the test far outweigh an evening on the toilet. A 35 year-old math teacher came to me one morning in tears because she was experiencing rectal bleeding and she was facing a colonoscopy. In her own mind, she was already dead and buried. A few days later she appeared relieved to find out that her situation was very minor and she would be fine.
A few students at my current school are aware that I had cancer seven years ago. The blue band I wear on my wrist is my statement that I am a survivor. I will tell them as much information as they want. Most teenagers equate cancer with death. My reassurance to them is that most forms of cancer are curable when early detection takes place. Colon cancer is one of the most curable forms of cancer when detected early. This is a life lesson that each student needs to learn as early as possible.
The one thing I want people to know is that I’m a typical male. I’m of the age when people are supposed to get tested. The following year after my surgery, I had another colonoscopy and had a polyp removed from my rectum. I’ve been polyp-free ever since. Currently, I am on the five-year cycle for colonoscopy. The test is not fun. The prep is the worst part but the drugs do a wonderful job of making the entire experience bearable.
I have a good friend who is a school superintendent with a history of colon cancer on both sides of his family. He resisted getting tested for years. When he finally did, he had several polyps removed. A local basketball coach, Dan, was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer just before I was diagnosed. He had to endure several months of chemo prior to his surgery. His post-operative experience was far more difficult than was mine as he had a temporary colostomy along with additional chemo-therapy. Dan’s surgery occurred on April 29th, just two days after I went home. I remember him telling me as we talked just after my diagnosis, “Terry, there’s one thing far worse than finding out that you have colon cancer… it’s not finding out that you have colon cancer.” Dan is a seven plus year survivor, retired from teaching and coaching, and enjoying life.
Two weeks after I was released from the hospital, my brother had his colonoscopy. He did have one polyp that was removed without any complications. I have three daughters, and one has had her first colonoscopy due to some minor rectal bleeding. Because of the substantial family history, the doctor felt it prudent to perform the test. All three of my daughters are resigned to the fact that the colonoscopy will be a significant part of their lives for years to come.
My oldest daughter, Corrie, was a paramedic when I was diagnosed. It was funny how she could walk in and out of the hospital whenever she wanted while I was recovering. Later she worked at a hospital as she worked on her nursing degree. Corrie was married in 2003, finished her nursing degree, and moved to California with her husband, who works in the radiology department of Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. Corrie is currently 29. My middle daughter, Brienne, is 27 and is a graduate student in psychology. My youngest, Robyn, is a travel agent and is 24. All three of my daughters will be tested before their 40th birthdays. They all have been in the house while I prepped for the test, and none of them are intimidated.
Women take these things so much better than men. My wife, Judy, was a special education teacher for 24 years and has been a high school principal for the past two years. We do share many “war stories”. We’ve been married for 34 years and are the best of friends; that is so important to a relationship, especially when things are tough. In college, I had known her for three or four months before we started dating. On our first date, I took her to watch me officiate a basketball game.
We have horses on our property; we have about eleven acres. On the day I was diagnosed, Judy told me she spent a lot of time talking to the horses and crying while she was in the barn. While the doctor did express his belief that it was an early stage of cancer, one never does know for sure. Judy was always so supportive while I recovered. Corrie and Robyn, the oldest and the youngest, had the attitude that, “oh it’s no big deal… you’re going to be fine!” Brienne, on the other hand, had a more difficult time dealing with the ideal that her dad had cancer. Through it all, my “girls” rallied to my support and made my recovery so much easier. Three weeks into my recovery, I “helped,” along with Judy, move my daughter from her dorm room after her first year of college. Judy and Brienne would be lifting heavy boxes and furniture and I would be following along with pillows and boxes of Kleenex. I’d lift my shirt and show my fresh scar to people saying that I had just had surgery and wasn’t a slave driver making the women do all of the heavy work.
Perhaps the #1 most important thing I found to help me through my ordeal was my sense of humor. The ability to laugh and to find humor in almost any situation is so important. The best example was in the recovery room following my surgery. As I regained consciousness and saw my family surrounding my bed I immediately thought of my favorite movie, “Young Frankenstein.” Madeline Kahn, the reluctant fiancee of Gene Wilder’s character, resists his attempts for a patient kiss with the words, “No tongue.” As my wife bent over to give me a kiss, my first words uttered were “no tongue, no tongue.” The entire room cracked up. Another memory is walking through the hospital hallways after surgery with my butt hanging out of my gown… you just don’t care. I met my surgeon on Thursday before my surgery. He performed a sigmoidoscopy on me that day as a part of my pre-operative workup. That Saturday I attended a baseball game in Cleveland. He walked right past me. I told my wife, “there’s my surgeon, but he won’t recognize me. I don’t think he’s ever seen my face.”
I feel truly blessed. I am so fortunate that my disease was caught at state I. Surgery was my cure… no chemo… one visit to an oncologist for a “pep talk” to encourage me to change my life style and to keep my schedule of appointments for the rest of my life. I appreciate life so much more now.
My mother’s experience with colon cancer helped me. Mine has helped my brother, and in a sense it prepares my daughters for their futures and what they need to deal with a family history of colon cancer so that early detection may keep them from the need for surgery.
Queah’s Story as told by Queah
My story begins with a misdiagnosis. I think that’s huge because most of us were misdiagnosed. I was working at Nordstrom and I had just moved to Houston. I had only been here about a year or a year and half, maybe less, and my benefits had started kicking in so I finally found a doctor.
I went to the doctor because I had bloating and couldn’t get rid of it. I even tried colon cleansing teas. I went to the doctor and she gave me a physical exam and I told her my symptoms. I was eating like a little bird and I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so full. She said you might be experiencing stomach irritation, and she mentioned IBS. She checked my rectum for blood and asked if I had seen any dark stools or blood and I said no. She decided to give me medication, so I picked up the prescription but it didn’t work – and I didn’t want to believe it was anything worse. I had gone seven months and it had gotten so bad, for maybe two months I was always getting sick. I had started working at a new job and for two months I was going back and forth to my general practitioner trying to figure out what was wrong. She was giving me scripts for this that and the other, but nothing worked.
Finally I was doubled over in pain and I had to call in sick to work. I thought it would be okay if I just lay down for a while, but I drove myself to the emergency room because I could barely walk. I told them I needed to be admitted because the pain was so bad, and the nurse could tell so she rushed me on to a stretcher. The doctor hadn’t seen me yet but the pain was so bad that the nurse gave me morphine. I was so freaked out because I realized it was bad because of the drugs they were giving me. My boyfriend showed up and I saw the doctor about an hour later, but I waited seven hours while they were prepping me for surgery. Initially they told me they didn’t know what was wrong, but they would go in laparoscopically and clean out whatever was making me sick.
My mom rushed in and when I woke up in the hospital, the surgeon who saw me told me that when he went in he saw that my appendix was about to rupture. There was a six-inch tumor on the side of my appendix that caused it to almost rupture. He took out my appendix, the tumor and some of my colon. He said, “Don’t worry, you haven’t been diagnosed with cancer or anything like that, but this is what we do to cancer patients to make sure we get everything out that we can get out.”
I found out I had cancer two days after I had surgery, and I just remember thinking this can’t be happening, it was surreal – you mean this is happening to me? Can this be happening? He took out a good part of colon, I think six inches, and when they did a biopsy on the large tumor, that one was not cancerous. But when they went in to biopsy the colon they found a tiny two centimeter tumor that was cancer. It was stage III and had gone through several layers of the colon wall, which was scary because he told me that if he hadn’t taken out that part of colon on a whim I could still be walking around with cancer.
When I found out what kind of cancer it was, everyone was asking me my family history, but nobody has ever had colon cancer in my family. I felt like it was a fluke that I ended up with it because I couldn’t trace it back anywhere. I believe in eating what you want in moderation so I would have a pork chop here and ice cream there, but I ate really healthy. I just couldn’t figure out why it was happening to me, and after a while I did some research and found out that it didn’t really happen to people like me – that it was typically an old man’s disease – an old white man’s disease.
After I found out I had cancer, my thinking was that I just wanted to do whatever I needed to do to get rid of it. Whatever the doctors wanted me to do, I would do it. When they told me chemo would be mandatory because of the stage, I was all for it. I didn’t really know what chemo was all about because I never knew anyone who was doing it. My grandmother had breast cancer but she went through radiation. Chemo was out there and I heard stories about it, but I didn’t really know what to expect. At that point I just wanted to survive, I just wanted to live and that was the most important thing to me. Every day was just getting me closer to the day I would start my chemo. I started on the first Tuesday in March and I just remember thinking that when I walked into the cancer clinic that I didn’t want to be there. It was really scary. Earlier in the beginning of the month I met with the on-site RN, who is the main nurse who gives all the chemo education. I remember sitting across from her hearing about the chemo I was going to get and the side effects. The drug I was going to be on was so new that some of the side effects they didn’t know about yet.
I was in shock. I didn’t know how to digest all of the information. It took me a few days because I wasn’t prepared to hear what she was telling me. I was blindsided and it was worse than I ever thought, when I went in for my first round I was scared to death. The first two weeks of chemo I was okay, I thought that if I had to go ten more rounds like that, I would be okay. But I wasn’t okay because every round of chemo made me sicker and more depressed.
I had been going to cancer counseling and around the time of my second round of chemo I got married. When I started going to my cancer counseling, the counselor told me a story about another woman she was counseling who was in a marriage and as soon as she was diagnosed her husband left her. I was thinking that I was so lucky, here I was going through chemo and my boyfriend wanted to marry me. I thought I was so lucky.
While we were dating the relationship was really good, but a month after we got married he turned into a person I didn’t recognize. He was abusive and it was very stressful. He wasn’t actually abusive while we were dating, but after we got married he was making demands, he was very selfish. I’m divorced now; my divorce was final in April of 2006. It was a bad situation, but at the time I had to deal with him and go through ten more rounds of chemo.
I kept a diary throughout the majority of my chemo, while I was going to counseling and while my husband and I were arguing. He and I started going to counseling together, and that helped a little bit because I was able to express what I was feeling. The counseling that my husband and I went to was a good thing, and I think that not enough people believe in counseling. They think that something has to be really wrong or you shouldn’t go, but it’s a really healthy thing to do. It helped me put some things back together, and it helped me realize I’m not by myself. There are other people who have the same experiences, emotions and fears. It was tough but I survived it all, I look back and I don’t know how – I was just so focused. I wanted to live so that I could leave him, I wanted to live so that I could have a family and go back to this great job. I just wanted to live to have a future and be happy and have all those dreams I had when I was a kid. I wanted to experience all of that.
I felt like if I gave up I would never get to that point. I didn’t think I ended up with cancer so that I could die at that point in my life. There’s so much more that I needed to do, that I had to do, and cancer was one of those things. But it’s hard when you are on so many medications with so many side effects. I felt like whatever they gave me, I would have all of the side effects.
I was okay until round nine of chemo. Once I hit my ninth round I wanted to give up; I wanted to stop it because I was so sick. I couldn’t move. I would get up and throw up, go back to bed, go to the kitchen and get a little bit to eat and then throw it up. If I could get up and lie down on the couch I would fall asleep 30 minutes later. I don’t know if the doctors thought I was making it up or not, but the doctors were telling me that they didn’t understand why I was so sick. That made me so depressed. My neuropathy got so bad that my hands hurt and were numb and ached at the same time. I couldn’t wear gloves and I couldn’t grip anything – the numbness would work its way up from my feet to my knees, and I was miserable. I just kept thinking there’s got to be something wrong with me because other people can do this. On top of that I was having allergic reactions to the nausea medicine they put me on. The type of reaction I was having was not just that it didn’t work; I was having violent muscle spasms and I had to go to the emergency room. While I was in the hospital the nurse gave me an extra dose of Ativan and told me to relax when in fact I was really having an allergic reaction, but we didn’t know it.
The worst was when I was home and I couldn’t control my neck, head, or arms – imagine having body parts you can’t control! My husband tried to massage me and he gave me doses of Ativan. I wanted to go to the hospital, but he said, “No, just take a hot bath.” I said, “If you don’t take me to the hospital I’ll take myself,” so he finally got up and took me to the hospital. When I went in to the emergency room nurse, a nurse at the counter was trying to get me to fill out the paperwork, but a nurse in the back heard me and saw the reaction I was having. She said, “You might be having an allergic reaction. What medication are you on? What are you taking?” I listed the drugs I was taking and somehow remembered the nausea medication, and she said that she thought that was it. She immediately took me to the back and gave me two high doses of Benadryl and within 10 minutes the symptoms had stopped. She said that the only reason she knew to do it is because she had the same reaction herself. I got lucky because this nurse had the same reaction. That’s just an example of the little things and the issues that I was dealing with. It seemed like everything that was happening – oh this only happens to a small percentage of women, but it happened to me. It sucked but I did get through it.
The beginning of my last round of chemo was August 15, 2005. I had a PET scan shortly after that and it was clean, and I had another one in May and it was still clean – so I’m officially in remission! I’m still at the doctor every single week, seriously, but I don’t mind. I go every Friday to the cancer clinic and they do blood work to make sure that the counts are good and everything. The cancer center has this distinctive smell, and I associate it with cancer; I still get a weak stomach when I go in for the blood work. On Fridays my oncologist is there and even though I don’t have an appointment I get to see him and consult with him if I’ve been having an issue over the week.
I’m glad to be able to do that, especially at my age – I’m so young I want the opportunity to stop anything before it starts, before the cells start dividing. So I have a follow-up every week, I see my oncologist, and I get some of the injections I had while I had chemo. My blood counts are still really low and I still have to take the nausea medicine. It’s the weirdest thing, the doctor says the chemo is over so you shouldn’t be so nauseous, but he still has to give me refills.
There are a lot of good things that came out of my whole cancer experience, but one good thing is that you can write off your medication on your taxes! That’s like $1000!
UPDATE: The Colon Club is saddened to report Queah lost her battle to colon cancer on March 19, 2011. Queah was a ball of joy, and will be missed by all. Please click here to read Queah’s obituary.