When did it truly start? Well, it never truly ends. I find myself writing this not that long after a recent PET scan, so it never really ends. So, the beginning…
I guess, for me, the beginning was well before my diagnosis, the day of July 19th, 1999. It was a hot and hazy day in Anchorage, Alaska. I had just graduated from college, I had just finished training and raising $4000 for the Leukemia Society of America to fund a young girl’s chemotherapy in Greeley, Colorado, and I was running the midnight sun marathon on her behalf. The irony was that, at the very same time, a cancerous tumor was growing much larger and starting to rear its ugly head within my own colon. I completed my first ever marathon that day, among the moose and mountains, and was naive to the fact that a cancerous tumor was growing in my ascending colon. I was healthy, inspired, and excited that I had just qualified for the Boston marathon, but from that point on, and for the next two years, my health declined rapidly. It’s strange how life can take such a dramatic turn so suddenly.
My diagnosis was May 8, 2001. I was 28 ripe years old. Between July 19th, 1999 and May, 2001, I had run a few more races and climbed some peaks in Colorado, but progressively had gotten more and more tired – the only symptom I had was that of being tired all the time. I remember one day at a ski slope with my family when I asked to just sit at the base in the ski lodge throughout the afternoon – and if you knew how much I loved to Telemark ski – you would realize that I was indeed exhausted. What was surprising to me was that I had just run a marathon, yet a year later I was struggling to run a mile.
During the fall of 1999, I went into my general practitioner and said I was feeling tired. “What’s the deal?” I would ask. My doctor then proceeded to only do a basic physical and didn’t find anything wrong, so I just kind of got passed off. This was a general practitioner in Fort Collins, Colorado, along the idyllic Spring Creek, in what has been dubbed the #1 “Choice City” place to live in America. I was in a supposed paradise where nothing ever bad ever seems to happen. In hindsight, I see the disappointment in how the clinic failed to do a thorough evaluation, and how, if they had, I might have found my tumor much earlier due to my sever anemia and iron deficiency.
Of course, I passed my symptoms of fatigue off as working too hard, running too hard, and all of that. Luckily though, I was working at CSU and heard about a faculty health fair to promote healthy lifestyles. So I went to the fair and received a full blood scan. That’s when they discovered that my iron was really low and my red blood cells were also low, like 2/3 of a normal red blood cell count. I was told to get further examination, so I went back to my general practitioner and he thought I had an ulcer or some bleeding, and instructed me to get a colonoscopy. So I went to a GI doctor. It’s now May 8th, 2001, the day of my colonoscopy, the day my GI found the baseball sized tumor in my ascending colon. No biopsy was need – colon cancer was a sure bet. Eventually, the location of the baseball ended up being a great thing because it allowed for surgical removal.
The diagnosis came as a shock to me and my whole family, but there was little time to process the details as a surgery was required as soon as possible. My surgeon performed my hemicolonectomy on May 23rd, 2001, as soon as they could get me in, due to the severity of my situation. When it was all said and done, 12 lymph nodes were removed, many affected, leading to a stage III diagnosis.
On June 30th, 2001, I started chemotherapy. It was a weekly regime, once a week every Thursday. It was CPT-11 (Camptosar) and 5FU and Leucovorin (my three chemo agents like the three musketeers with a mission). It was designed to be a difficult treatment regime since I was young. Initially, I did this routine once a week for four weeks on and one week off. That turned out to be a bad idea because the regime turned out to be too much. I made it through the first round fine, but by the second or maybe the third round, the chemotherapy was accumulating in my body to such a degree that I ended up hospitalized for a week – I couldn’t keep anything down, I was losing fluids, and I was losing weight. IV’s were needed once again – a familiar friend from my surgery. My oncologist said “okay, we’re going to do three on, one off, so it should be a little bit more tolerable.” This new regime worked out much better.
So, this new regime went on for nine long months. Coincidentally, I finished my last chemo treatment on Valentine’s Day, Feb 14th, 2002. I kind of skipped the whole Valentine’s party, no chocolate that day! Throughout the whole process, the thing that was strange for me was realizing that back in 1999, when I finished 34th in my marathon out of 1,000+ runners and qualified for the Boston Marathon, I was simultaneously raising money for something that I had had no experience with, but was soon to experience first hand. I felt like I was doing a good thing by raising money for Leukemia, yet at the same time was harboring my own cancer. I was glad to be raising money for that cause, and now I see the need even more!
My family isn’t unique to cancer, we have a family history that rivals other stories. My mom has had breast cancer twice now. She was diagnosed once in 1994 and then again in 2002 – her first bout brought on surgery and the second chemotherapy. My dad has had kidney cancer twice now, with recurring bladder cancer. He recently finished his second surgery at the Cleveland Clinic – the first brought about the removal of one kidney and the second precariously removed a tumor on his one remaining kidney. Each bout for him has brought on subsequent bladder cancer and the need for regular local chemotherapy.
After chemo, I of course wanted to get back to life. I started running again, and hiking, and mountaineering. One thing led to the next. I ran a few half marathons and discovered a Colorado State University-led expedition to climb Cerro Aconcagua, Spanish for Mount Aconcagua. Aconcagua (22,840 feet) is the highest mountain outside of Asia. It is one of the Seven Summits – the highest in South America. The climb was awesome. There were not many people on our remote route. We were on the mountain 13 days, and the whole deal was 3 weeks. All my life I had dreamed of being part of a big expedition, yet while doing the climb, the only reason I saw for doing it was to do it was for everyone afflicted with cancer. I had had it up to here with cancer in my own family, and personally, and so my Aconcagua expedition was dedicated to all people fighting and afflicted by cancer.
I never once had a cigarette in my entire life, so I certainly wasn’t expecting any kind of cancer. My mom’s brother died of lung cancer, so my brain immediately thought of cancer as smoking-related, but there are so many other cancers that just happen, regardless of a person’s lifestyle. I wasn’t expecting cancer because I had done everything I thought I could have done to live a healthy life up until diagnosis.
When I wasn’t feeling good, I knew that something was wrong I was getting skinny and pale, kind of anorexic-looking. In retrospect, I look at pictures of myself and realize just how sick I was starting to look.
I asked “why me?”, but I wasn’t focused on anything I could have done to prevent it. I just think cancer happens. Things in life happen like that. For me, I think that things happen for a reason. It shed light on my ultra-competitiveness. It made me think and focus and remind myself that I didn’t have to win every race in the world to be happy. I just had to be healthy to be happy. If you are too active, you are just not enjoying things, the finer things in life, as much as you could be enjoying them. I learned to smell the roses – yes a cliché, but it was true for me.
You get stubborn, like “I’m fine.” You learn to live with pain, as an athlete, so when you’re uncomfortable you don’t think it’s a problem. You are used to, at mile 9 in a half marathon, hurting. But you know how to run through it to get to mile 13.You also tend to be in tune with your body, you listen to your body as an athlete. Even though I was ignoring my cancer, thinking “I’ll be fine, I’m just tired,” I do think that I had an extra sense that something was wrong. I evaluated my running regularly. As soon as my abilities went downhill, I began trying to figure out what was wrong. Yet – I couldn’t figure it out. It’s kind of like my athletic lifestyle was a negative because it made me wait longer to get evaluated than maybe I should have, yet it was a positive because it ultimately made me get an answer.
An illness heightens the awareness of your own body, even if you just break an arm or something, and you think about your body differently. I think that my young age, my feeling invulnerable, played into it. I thought I can do anything, I just ran this marathon. You are young and in your prime so to speak, and you’re just moving forward and life is good. And then you have a realization, a wake up and smell the coffee kind of diagnosis. I always wish I could come up with this eloquent, magical sentence that are words of wisdom for people, but I can never get the words I want.
The period between the marathon and diagnosis I see as plain Jane life. It’s the busyness of everyday life that made me be too busy to pay attention to what was going on with me physically. I had just graduated in 1999 with my master’s degree and had started a new job in Denver – an environmental company doing a lot of mine land reclamation. My background is in botany, I’m a plant ecologist. I was in the middle of a lot of things; life changes, graduation, moving, job, the marathon. I started the new job and it didn’t work out so well. It was a rat race and I was only there about three months before I got in touch with a colleague who ended up helping me find a job at Colorado State University. It was this busyness, this new job, a career direction change, breaking up with a girlfriend, that kind of thing, that blurred my vision. My point is that you are so busy that you don’t pay attention to the signs your body is giving you seriously. My body was giving me the signs, but I was ignoring them because I was so wrapped up in life’s busyness. That time, 2000, was really me not paying attention to the signs.
For me, before my colonoscopy, my doctor was palpating my belly. For some reason, at that moment, I knew I had cancer (it was a premonition or something). But before that, I never thought I would have cancer. I was healthy and did not drink much, never smoked, and lived a healthy, active lifestyle. I had no reason to expect that I would get cancer. I’m grateful to be here for sure, it’s almost like am I making the most of every day b/c I am so lucky to be here.
When I discovered The Colon Club online, I was very excited because it was focused on early-onset colon cancer. It’s so important. I had never heard of colon cancer before, I was very healthy and my favorite food was broccoli for heaven’s sake! I was healthy and hadn’t heard of it, so I didn’t think about it at all. It’s not a household name, maybe it is more so above 50, but up until then you just don’t hear about it. So, what The Colon Club is doing (raising awareness) is very important.