June 2014

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Diagnosed at 23 in 2009 Stage IV Colon Cancer Spokane, WA

Laura McClinton

No matter how alone or different you feel, there are others out there like you.

Laura McClinton was on her way to accomplishing her 6th grade dream of being an attorney when she experienced dull abdominal pain. After months of brushing it off, assuming either birth control pills or stress were to blame, she finally went to see a series of doctors who found stage IV colon cancer at age 23.

Her “losing it” moment was when she realized she needed to take a semester off law school. She underwent surgery, chemo and radiation while continuing to work and study. Determination and great support kept her on track.

Laura finished her coursework just two months later than planned and is currently practicing as a prosecuting attorney.

In Her Own Words:

My name is Laura McClinton. I am 27 years old and blessed to have a career as a Deputy Prosecuting Attorney in Kootenai County in the beautiful Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. I am also a football enthusiast; I love to be active and play sports and I love spending quality time with my friends and family. More importantly, I am a survivor of Stage 4 colon cancer and have been cancer-free since June 30, 2010.

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My cancer journey began in the fall of 2009 when I was in my first semester of my 2nd year of law school at Gonzaga School of Law in Spokane, WA. In the beginning of October I started having some unusual symptoms. I was waking up for my 8am class feeling nauseated, exhausted, and experiencing more frequent diarrhea. After a few weeks I began noticing a small but consistent pain in my lower left abdomen. The pain would come and go, but it was never strong enough that I felt like I needed to go see a doctor. After about a month of complaining about this strange pain, I finally decided to go to the Student Health Center to get it checked out on my Thanksgiving break. I had brushed the pain aside, excusing it as stress related to being a law student.

The doctor examined me and thought I might have a cyst on my ovary, so he referred me for a CT scan. They noticed some sort of abnormality on the scan and referred me to a gastroenterologist for further review. I then met with Dr. Fitterer at Inland Empire Gastroenterology and he felt around my stomach and felt a little lump in the exact spot where I had been feeling pain. That day he assured me that he was 99% certain I did not have to be worried about cancer, but was convinced my birth control may have caused a blood clot. I did not have any of the typical characteristics for colon cancer anyway – no family history, no issues with obesity, no dietary problems, and I worked out at least 5 times a week. Leaving that appointment, I had no concerns about the possibility of having cancer.

Because I was in my last two most stressful weeks of school we decided to wait to do a colonoscopy until after I finished finals. I finished my last final on December 15, 2009, and went in to get my colonoscopy on December 17. After the colonoscopy was over I knew something was dreadfully wrong; he had hit my tumor during the procedure which had caused bleeding, and I felt horrible. The next day I continued to have frequent bleeding and called his office because I didn’t think this was normal. Dr. Fitterer asked me to come back in to see him because my labs had come back showing I was very anemic. At this point he didn’t have my biopsy results back, so I left work and went to his office by myself to discuss my anemia. He received my biopsy results after I got to his office. Dr. Fitterer sat me down with tears in his eyes and told me this was one of the worst weeks of his life because had to tell a 23 year old that she had cancer. I immediately started crying, shocked at the unexpected news. He told me this was like lightning striking, I was one in a million – lucky me!

I called my Dad in hysteria and asked him and my Mom to meet me at Dr. Fitterer’s office. Dr. Fitterer immediately scheduled an appointment with my surgeon, Dr. McNevin for that same day. At this point, I started calling people to let them know the news, and my best friend from law school left work and met me at Dr. McNevin’s office, as well as one of my best friends from high school. By the time Dr. McNevin got to meet with me, my family and friends were crowding the room, so he moved us to a large conference room to discuss my case. Dr. McNevin took a quick look at my CT scan and estimated that my cancer was a stage 2 or 3 and that I needed surgery immediately. He would have admitted me that night, due to my anemia, but I declined, deciding to wait to be admitted until Monday, December 21, the day of my surgery.

That same night, Dr. McNevin told me I would most likely have to do 6 months of chemo, which would mean I couldn’t go to law school for the spring semester. My friend Heidi and I immediately started crying; law school was my dream and it felt like all my hard work was being taken from me in an instant. I had wanted to be an attorney since 6th grade and had structured my entire life around preparing for law school. That night felt like God was punishing me, but for what, I didn’t know. We left that night and I called all my friends and told them the shocking news. I felt so much overwhelming love and support from family and friends, that somehow I just knew things would be okay!

One of my best friends from college, Amaia, flew in that Sunday to be with me, and my friend Mikaela flew in from Seattle as well to be there for me. I was truly overwhelmed with support from the people who meant the most to me. That Sunday, a few of my friends went shopping with me, as I hadn’t managed to get any Christmas shopping done yet. At that point I could really feel that I was sick.  It was like all of a sudden it had just hit me – I was dragging while walking around that mall!

Monday morning rolled around and I was exhausted and ready for surgery. I went to the hospital with an army, consisting of six of my dearest friends and my parents. I wore my Grandma’s ring for good luck and prayed the Lord would keep me safe. I went into surgery, having no expectations, but just wanting this toxic thing out of my body so I could start getting better. I awoke from surgery and felt fine. I was pushed through a hallway and was welcomed back with about 25 of my closest friends and family members. Tears came to my eyes, as I felt God’s love enveloping me.

After a couple more visitors had come in, my surgeon came by and told me the news that I had stage 4 colon cancer. Dr. McNevin had removed 8 inches of my colon, a piece of my bladder, and both of my ovaries. I looked at him in complete shock and said, “I can’t have kids?” He said no, and I quietly started to sob. Having cancer was bad enough; interfering with all of my goals in life and the only thing that ever really mattered to me had been taken away in a 3 hour surgery. I later found out that he stopped my surgery in the middle of it and asked my parents’ permission to remove the second ovary, as it looked like it was cancerous.

The next few days of recovery were a blur, as I was in excruciating pain and felt very weak. I received an iron and blood transfusion as my counts were very low. I finally managed to take a shower and walk around a bit in order to be released on Christmas day. In the meantime, my brother had flown in from Omaha, Nebraska to be with me, and my sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew flew in from Okinawa, Japan. Having my family supporting me meant the world to me. Seeing my Princess and Monster (niece Emma and nephew Aden) made me so happy and really were the only people who cheered me up. My mom really wanted me to be home for Christmas, but I really didn’t care, as I felt safe at the hospital and was scared to leave.

Christmas consisted of me sitting on the couch, opening gifts and barely moving, with friends dropping by to see me. Although I felt loved, it was the most miserable Christmas of my 23 years! It took me several weeks to really recover and finally to feel okay walking around. I met with my oncologist, Dr. Nichols in the beginning of January and decided to begin Chemo January 26, 2010. I began going to chemo 3 days a week, every other week for the next 6 months. My first PET scan after surgery revealed that my surgery had removed all my cancer, except for a 1 cm. nodule that remained. The goal of chemo was to eradicate it.

Chemo was certainly an adventure, but I got nauseous only once (for about 2 minutes my very first day). Other than that, I experienced no nausea, thank God! The worst side effects were from a drug called Oxaliplatin – which caused me to not be able to drink cold water or eat anything cold because it felt like glass was cutting the back of my throat. 5FU was another drug I received for 48 hours in a pouch I nicknamed “El Stupido.” I hated that drug, as it tore apart my hands and feet. I started taking showers with gloves on, as the hot water ripped my hands apart even further. I also ended up experiencing neuropathy, losing some feeling in my hands and feet. I have pretty much now recovered from that with the exception of some lingering numbness in my toes. Another side effect of chemo was that I was extremely tired all the time and lost close to 20 lbs, but overall my body handled chemo remarkably well. I didn’t lose my hair or experience nausea, which seemed to amaze everyone around me. I never had to stop chemo to let my body recover, as my blood counts were always high enough to keep going as planned.

About halfway through chemo, my second PET scan revealed that the nodule had shrunk 70%, which meant the chemo was working! But getting through the last 6 weeks of chemo was really rough, as I had no energy and felt really weak. However, I managed to keep working at the private law firm I had been previously working at. I worked every other week that I wasn’t on chemo and even started going in on Fridays of my on-chemo week. I needed to get out of the house, so anything to do that was my savior!

I was also really motivated to stay on track with my chemo regimens because my plan was to enroll full-time in summer school which started a mere week-and-a-half after I was scheduled to finish chemo. My last PET scan after I finished my treatment showed no cancer and I was ecstatic! I started summer school a week-and-a-half later, and was finally able to just focus on school; it felt amazing to be back. As soon as I finished school, my entire family went on a family vacation to Hawaii. However, I couldn’t fully enjoy it because I was not even close to being recovered from the toll chemo had taken on my body. I was exhausted and my lung capacity was shot; even walking through the sand made me out of breath and I felt like an old woman!

As soon as I came back from vacation, I started my fall semester of school and enrolled again as a full time student. I also started a 5 ½ week regimen of radiation, which was designed to be a preventative measure, as my cancer had been so severe and there were concerns about a reoccurrence. I also had to take an oral chemo medication once daily while I was doing radiation.  I went to school, then to radiation, then to work, and back to school. My radiologist, Dr. Lee, offered me my own desk at the nursing station because I would eat my lunch at their office and read for my classes between my break. I was literally running around like crazy!

I was truly blessed with the most amazing and caring doctors in the world. They continually told me I was such a positive motivation and inspiration to them, but I truly felt like they were my heroes and inspiration; after all, they saved my life! One day Dr. Lee came in to see me at a routine check-up that a PA was supposed to do without him, as he wanted to stop by and tell me that he has spoken about me at his youth group, telling the kids what a positive role model and inspiration I was to him. I left that appointment and cried, as I had never felt such gratitude and honor from any compliment I have ever received.

After I finished radiation, I started working out the next day and I felt almost immediately better. After about 2 to 3 months, I really felt like myself again. I gained back my weight and strength and was able to tackle school and work with a renewed energy!

At the end of the day, I know that I was able to handle everything so well because I had such an amazing support system – God, family, friends, classmates, and co-workers. Several of my friends put on fundraisers for me, and my church held a big dinner for me as well. I really believe that I was able to get through this challenge by relying on my faith in God. I didn’t understand why he put me through all of this, but I recognized that he would only put me through something he knew I could handle.

At every turning point, I could have gotten bad news, but all I received was positive and encouraging news after my surgery. Life got better as it went along, and I only have numerous prayers, love, encouragement, and support to attribute my success to. I began volunteering at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in February 2011 in hopes to be able to make a difference in some small way, as so many Doctors, Nurses, and staff positively affected my own life. My saying that I constantly relied upon during my ordeal, and to this day, is that “Without faith, nothing is possible, but with faith, anything is possible.” It is my hope to be an encouragement to others going through similar struggles, and would love to talk to anyone facing a health crisis like mine.

I hope to be able to show people that cancer is but an obstacle, that when faced with a positive attitude and faith in God, it can be fought head-on and overcome! I was able to finish law school a mere 3 months behind schedule, took the bar exam, and have been licensed as a lawyer since May 2012. As I sat in Dr. McNevin’s conference room on December 18, 2009, I would have never expected to have made it to where I am today. Cancer has taught me to not take a single day for granted and to live every day to the fullest. I am so thankful for being given a second chance at life, as I know how quickly my life could have been taken from me. Now I am just a fun-loving 27 year old girl, living in the moment and enjoying my family and friends who mean everything to me! While cancer has left devastating effects on my life, I know that God had his reason for presenting me with such a huge burden at such a young age. God is good, all the time!