Charmica Epps was not overly concerned with her symptoms. Having recently had her second child, she assumed the blood in her stool was probably the result of hemorrhoids (a common misdiagnosis for colorectal cancer).
A busy mom of two who was engaged to be married and working as the Director of Alumni Relations at Virginia State University, she didn’t have time in her life to factor in anything other than this being a nuisance. She’s not the type of person who lets the little things get in the way of what’s important.
After it continued for a while, she decided it was best to get in and see a doctor to make sure. Concerned about the bleeding, her doctor sent her to a gastroenterologist and a colonoscopy was scheduled.
The colonoscopy would reveal a tumor blocking half of her colon. After the scan was complete, the doctor would take Charmica and her mom, who had accompanied her to the appointment, into the office and deliver the news. They would run tests to verify his fears, but he was ninety-nine percent sure of what they had found.
The test came back positive. Although the tumor had not yet moved to her lymph nodes, the sheer size of the tumor and its invasive nature into and through the wall of her colon necessitated a higher staging.
Charmica had stage III colorectal cancer. She was 34 years old.
It was March of 2019. And sitting in that doctor’s office, her mother set the stage for how things would proceed by exclaiming “The Devil is a liar!” And with that Baptist exhortation, Charmica was ready to fight.
There was no history of colorectal cancer in her family so the doctor was surprised that she, an otherwise healthy young person would be a cancer patient. Considering her age and the fact that she had two young children at home who may be affected by any underlying genetic condition - her oncologist ordered additional testing to see if there was a link. None would be found.
The doctor recommended surgery, but Charmica had a caveat. Back before all of this had happened, she had signed up and been training for a 10k, and she didn’t want all of that to go to waste. With her doctor’s approval, she went ahead and ran the race, just days before her surgery.
The surgery was a success. Twelve doses of FOLFOX chemotherapy would follow. Her mom and friends would accompany her to most appointments. Her fiancé was the type of caregiver, as are many of us, who wore a bit of worry on his countenance – and to her that didn’t seem conducive to a successful office visit. Charmica completed her treatments in December of 2019.
Follow-up scans would continue throughout Covid, but she made sure to get her life back to normal. She and her fiancé had been engaged to be married in May of 2020, but the world shutting down nixed those plans. As churches and enclosed spaces were closed for ceremonies, she and her fiancé found a park and had the ceremony there.
In reflecting upon her cancer journey, Charmica thinks about a line of scripture from the Gospel According to John, “This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, so that the son of God may be glorified by it.” And in many ways her experience has charged her to reach out and help others who may find themselves in the same situation.
Her career as a fundraiser for historically black colleges and universities has transitioned to a similar job, this time at the Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center. It’s a natural change that allows her to help others by telling her story.
In her advocacy she wants to reach out to communities of color encouraging prevention, awareness and self-advocacy. By telling her story, she hopes to dispel community trepidation regarding doctors as well as the taboos around colorectal cancer.
As of this writing, Charmica just passed three years from the end of treatment and remains NED (No Evidence of Disease). Her first anniversaries consisted of cake and hugs from her husband, Daryl, and her daughters, Ava and Makayla. This year she went a bit bigger. Just above her chemo port scar, she now has a tattoo. It’s a line from a Maya Angelou poem, “Still I rise.” Considering everything she has been through, it’s perfect.
That old devil never stood a chance.