October 2009

Danielle’s Colondar Bio

Sponsored by Figg Tree Foundation

Danielle Ripley Burgess first saw blood in her stool in junior high. She and her mother did research but wrote it off as hemorrhoids. Because of her age and lack of family history, there was no reason to think otherwise. By high school, she hoped her little “problem” was going away when she didn’t see it for a few days, but it only got worse.

Scared to see a doctor, Danielle kept her secret and tried to control the bleeding by cutting red food from her diet. When that didn’t work, she finally mentioned it to her boyfriend. Her parents overheard and were shocked that the bleeding was still happening. They called the doctor, who quickly sent her to a gastroenterologist. She had a colonoscopy and was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer at just 17.

Danielle had surgery and started chemotherapy a few months before her junior prom. She continued chemotherapy after the prom, had another surgery to move her ovaries out of the path of radiation and then started radiation.

The day Danielle found out she had cancer, her youth pastor came over to pray with her, beginning a support system that she would come to cherish throughout her treatment. She believes that prayer helped guide her and hopes that her experience will allow her to share God with more people. Although she’ll never understand why she got cancer at such a young age, she has faith that one day it will all make perfect sense.

Danielle’s story as told by Danielle

The blood in my stool had, sadly, become something normal. I wish I could remember my exact age when I began to see it; the symptoms might have been seen as early as junior high. Going to the bathroom became a strange sort of hide-and-seek game for me. Every time I had to go, I’d hold my breath, hoping the blood wouldn’t appear on the toilet paper. Its absence never failed to trigger high hopes that perhaps my problem was getting better.  But then it always came back.

My mom and I did some brief research when the blood first began appearing and wrote it off as hemorrhoids. It had to be that or some sort of tear, but we assured ourselves it was nothing that was a big deal. I felt OK, and I was able to and did carry on with my normal life. In high school, I played volleyball my first year but later dove into the theatre and began running the backstage for several of our high school shows. I became active in several clubs and had lots of friends to spend time with every weekend. It was a busy yet extremely fun time in my life.

Part of what made high school so fun for me was the start of my junior year and this guy named Mike. We had become best friends in two years. The beginning of that school year, he changed colleges and went away to a school two hours from our hometown. It only took a few weeks of separation before we realized what we meant to each other and became boyfriend and girlfriend.

The semester continued to get better and better, and I had actually gotten to the point where I loved school. But my little bleeding problem was always in the back of my mind, and then it began to get worse. I stopped eating red foods and abstained from anything else I’d convinced myself would make the bleeding go away, but I never succeeded. One night, the blood was so bad I told Mike about it. I had not mentioned it to my parents because I was scared they would take me to the doctor, and I was royally embarrassed. Mike encouraged me to go to the doctor and continued to nag me when he was home on the weekends. And his plan worked.  When my parents overheard him and realized I was having my “little problem,” my days of hide and seek were over.

They quickly called my general doctor and explained what was going on with me. Over the phone, they asked the “bright red, dark red, black” questions and knew immediately by my responses that I needed to see a specialist ASAP. The next day I visited Dr. T, my gastroenterologist, who performed an initial blood screening and scheduled me for a colonoscopy the next week. I had never heard of such a test and had no idea what I was in for or what they were worried they would find. I was clueless.

I made it through the prep (with much help from Mike who brought gifts half-way throughout the night) and wound up in the outpatient room the next morning. It was January 20, 2001—the day President Bush was being inaugurated, and I was missing it (he was much more popular then, I promise.)  They put me out and began the test, and the next thing I knew I was waking up from a very deep sleep to some strange faces. My parents explained that they had to put me out longer to keep performing the test, and that’s why I was so tired. They didn’t say much more than that except that they would know something in a few days. Their expressions hinted that there was more to say, but I remained oblivious to what I was about to face.

The next day when we went to church, I noticed my parents’ faces had become even more somber. They spoke quietly with friends and requested special prayers for me. When I went down to the youth group, I finally figured out the reason for the strange behavior. My Sunday school teachers had heard through the rapidly growing grapevine about my test, and they asked me point-blank if I had cancer. I was taken back because the thought had never crossed my mind.  My knee-jerk reaction was to shrug the notion off.  “No way,” I told them without examining whether I believed my words or not.  “We’re just waiting on a few test results to show I’m fine.”

Three days later, on January 23, my parents got the call that I did indeed have a malignant tumor in my colon that would soon need to be surgically removed. They came to see me at work and delivered the news. I was in awe and didn’t really know how to respond. The only thing I knew about cancer was that the one person I’d known who had it hadn’t made it, and he’d gone fast. I grabbed my coat, gave my boss a huge hug, and told her I wasn’t sure when I’d be back. I went home and called Mike. As I told him the news, it finally began to sink in.

My youth pastor, Nick, came over that night to pray with me and my family. I’m not sure what happened between the time I found out and the time he came over, but, by the end of the night, I had a unique and strange peace that everything was going to be OK. Before Nick left, he gave me a huge hug and asked me how I was.  All I could say was that getting cancer was one thing that would really spice up my testimony and help me share Jesus with so many more people.

From there on out, my memories are a blur (which I hear can be a side-effect of the chemo).  On February 2, I was in surgery with Dr. Connor – a Godsend of a doctor, and a week later I was home from the hospital. After the surgery, they diagnosed me with stage III cancer because it had spread into lymph nodes, which meant I would need chemotherapy and radiation.

I was referred to excellent doctors who soon became my friends. We first met with Dr. Rosen who helped outline my aggressive three-drug chemo treatment. One of the drugs was new on the market and was a guaranteed hair-killer. Standing in front of the mirror and trying to imagine what I would look like without hair made the cancer diagnosis really hit home.  For one of the first times since I’d gotten the news, I cried. I cut my hair short in preparation for chemo, but I also began praying hard that my hair would last the few months I had left until my junior prom.

During my six-week chemo routine, Mike would come home every weekend, which helped to cheer me up and remind me that I could beat this thing. By the time prom night came, I was feeling good and—praise the Lord—still had my hair! I had a great time at prom and began learning how to not take anything for granted.

The next week, I got back on my treatment and finished out my initial six weeks of chemo. I had a second surgery to move my ovaries outside of the path of radiation. Because I was so young, doctors wanted to preserve the hormones and save the ovaries as much as they could, although the chance of conceiving children naturally one day was slim. Being 17-years-old, I didn’t really care that much when I learned of the effect the surgery would have on my fertility, and my doctor continued to remind my dad my survival was the most important thing at that moment. I had never been one of those gals who dreamed of being a mommy and having my own kids one day. When my mom and I look back, she reminds me of a plan I had at age five to drive a Jeep and adopt a toddler. While I don’t have that Jeep yet, we’re beginning to see how God has been preparing my heart for adoption for many years, and we’re amazed at how that plan is most likely going to come true one of these days.

Once I recovered from my ovary suspension surgery, I then took a “buggy ride” with my dad for 30 days to receive 30 days of radiation from Dr. Paradelo while receiving continuous chemo. Although my cancer was classified as colon, the tumor was located within the 10 cm region where the colon and rectum meet, so they wanted me to do radiation as well to make sure the rectum was clear. That was a long 30 days. Toward the end, I had a hard time sitting, eating and basically living. I was glad to have that over with.

After the radiation, I could only finish four more weeks of chemo. On July 24, I walked into Dr. Rosen’s office weak and tired after six months of cancer treatment, and he said I was done. He ordered me to go home, celebrate, and take care of myself—and to enjoy my full head of hair that stayed with me despite the odds. My parents went out and bought me a watch to always remember the day, and we went and had a big celebration dinner that evening.

That was several years ago, and I have been cancer-free ever since. All the blood draws, CT scans, PET scans and every other test over the years have come back clear. Having cancer has been one of the best and worse things that could have happened to me. Naturally, it was a physically and emotionally exhausting experience that tested me and my family in every way possible. The list of negatives is very long.

But I’ve also been blessed in so many ways. Nick, my then youth minister, is now the lead pastor of a church we are starting together – a move I would not have made if not for our strong relationship and “live life to the fullest” mentality. While I was always a daddy’s girl, my relationship with my dad grew even closer, and I have also formed a close bond with my mom. Having cancer showed me how much my family loves me and the lengths to which they will go to make me well. My brother and I grew close enough for him to tell me I’m his hero (in a roundabout, guy sort of way).  The ordeal also showed me what an amazing man God had made Mike; I learned then he was the one who would later become my husband and continue to take care of me (and I him).

As a cancer survivor, I know some of the best things in life can come from such a trial. Cancer quickly helps you determine your true friends, and that was such a good lesson for me to learn at a young age. Cancer taught me how to truly rest, how to put worries aside, and how to focus on what’s important. I wouldn’t be “me” if I had not gone through this disease.

Cancer has also become a defining marker for my faith, and my love for Jesus Christ. While it was so natural to feel that having colon cancer was so unfair and unexplainable – I have faith that it’s all part of God’s master plan for me. I’m able to relate to others, to share my faith, and to help reach out to our culture in a new way as a survivor.  Cancer makes you think about your life as it is:  temporary.  It makes you and people you know think about what happens after death. And thanks to my faith, I had a peace and excitement about the future, no matter what side of earth I was going to be on. I’m thankful He decided to keep me here to tell my story and share his love. He’s a great God, and I’m honored to have his greatness shine through my life. There’s a reason for everything, and, while I still don’t entirely understand why I was chosen to go have cancer at such a young age, I know enough to know that one day it will all make perfect sense.