My story begins in July 2006 at the age of 38. Although nothing is perfect, I would have to say I was having as close to a perfect life as one can. That all came crashing down one day in July. I was at work in New York City and was heading home to meet my husband Eric, my sons, Ryan and Tyler, and my friends at their lake club. I was sitting at work and while in the bathroom I noticed a clot of blood. This had never happened to me before and I thought I should check it out. Upon arriving home from work, I went to urgent care. They recommended that I see a gastroenterologist. I am not one to ignore a doctor’s order so luckily I went to the GI doctor.
The GI doctor gave me an exam and thought I should have a colonoscopy. He was certain that it would be nothing, probably a hemorrhoid or colitis. After the colonoscopy and before I was awake, the GI doctor had gone in to speak with Eric. He said that there was a very large tumor, approximately the size of a baseball, in my colon. He was not able to get past the tumor with the scope to view the entire colon. He was able to get a biopsy and was certain that it would not be cancer (as I was young and had no family history). Regardless, I would need surgery to have the tumor removed. Upon awaking in the room, I could tell by the look on Eric’s face that something was wrong. Due to the size of the tumor, the doctor felt that the tumor had probably formed in my twenties. He scheduled me for a CT scan (which came out clean) and I had no idea why I would need a cat scan nor did I know how fortunate the news was that it was clean.
Three days later I went to see the surgeon I was referred to by my medical group. He discussed briefly how I would need surgery to take out my tumor and part of my colon. He was very matter of fact and cold. He then said, Oh by the way, did anyone confirm to you that you have cancer? I HAVE WHAT!!!!!, I screamed in my head. He said, “Oh I am sorry, I thought you knew you have colon cancer. ” At that moment, time stood still and my perfect little world as I knew it was changed forever. I can relive that moment like it were yesterday. How could a 38 year old in the best health and shape of her life have cancer? I remember returning to the car with Eric and us just sobbing. Wow, was this really happening to me?
We left the surgeon’s office with such distaste by his cold, matter of fact personality. He did not discuss the cancer, where it was located or anything that made me feel secure. Eric and I were dazed, worried and overwhelmed. At that time, I will call myself naive to cancer and ignorant to how many young people are affected by it. I knew nothing about most cancers, especially colon cancer, nor did any type of cancer run in my family. All of this information comes at you so rapidly and the whole time you are in such a daze. You feel like it is all a dream and then when you realize it is not, all you can do is cry. I cannot stress enough that you really need to be your own advocate. You need to spend the time doing all the research you can, talk to others and get the best doctors/surgeons for your specific situation. Keep searching until you find a doctor/surgeon that you can trust, will listen to you and make you feel secure.
Eric and I spent numerous hours on the internet researching for ourselves everything about colon cancer. We also researched the best surgeons in our area, as I knew there was no way I would have the surgeon I just met do my surgery. In the process of our research, we found that there were two types of surgery for a colon resection, open surgery and laparoscopic surgery. We interviewed two more surgeons and luckily for me, a friend of a friend had just returned from having colon cancer and raved about her surgeon. When I called his office I could not get an appointment for three weeks out. However, after crying to his nurse and showing how scared I was, she got me in the next day. He was a specialist in colon resections and he sat on the oncology board at a hospital. He performed both open and laparoscopic surgery. After discussing both of these options, he said that there was no additional risk in my particular situation to have laparoscopic surgery. From the moment I met him, I felt relieved and knew he was the one who should do my surgery. He made me feel safe, secure and hopeful that everything would be okay. He told me there was a chance that I would need a temporary colostomy. He sent me to another GI doctor, whom I love and still use today, for another colonoscopy. He was able to use a smaller scope and get past the tumor. Luckily nothing else was found.
On a beautiful day in July I was off to have my surgery. Beside the terror I felt at having cancer, I was petrified of having surgery. I had never even had a tooth pulled and now I was having a major surgery. I remember waiting on the stretcher and just shaking and crying while my family said goodbye. The surgeon came over and held my hand and was so sweet to me. I will always remember that. The surgery took 5 hours and when he was done he came out to my family and said, “well, it’s another boy! “The surgery was a success. Although the tumor was large, it was contained in the colon wall and the lymph nodes that were removed were not affected. One foot of my colon was removed. A temporary colostomy was not needed. Given the tumor was contained in the colon wall and the 9 lymph nodes removed did not test positive, I was categorized as Stage I colon cancer. The surgeon said based on all of that I would not need chemo and gave me an oncologist to follow up with. I went to see the oncologist and he felt that although I was Stage I, there were not enough lymph nodes removed (he would have felt better with 15+ lymph nodes removed) and for that reason he would recommend chemo. This sent me into a frenzy. If I needed chemo I sure as hell wanted to have it. However, having chemo if you don’t need it is not recommended. So I went to see three more oncology doctors at three top cancer centers. All 3 oncologists were in agreement with my surgeon and advised me not to have chemo.
The first thing that I thought of when I was told about my cancer was my two sons. Ryan was only 5 and Tyler was 2. I thought of all the joy they have brought us and how many happy times ahead we would have. There is no way that I was going to let them lose their mother. It was so hard because they did not know what I was going through, and just looking at them would make me cry. I love them more than words can say. I remember when I left for surgery I thought that I might not be back. I wrote Eric, Ryan and Tyler each a heartfelt letter. I told Eric where the letters were. Thankfully, they are still where I left them and have never been opened. Now Ryan is 9 and Tyler is 6 and they are my everything. I thank God everyday for them and for keeping me here to be the best mom I can be.
When I was diagnosed, I found The Colon Club site. At that time, I read all of the survivors stories for every year. Those stories gave me such encouragement and hope. To see that there were others my age and younger who have been through what I was going through helped me tremendously. I also was referred to the Colon Cancer Alliance (CCA) through my sister-in-law. With the help of her friend from that group, I was able to reach out to what they call the buddy system. Three women who had gone through what I did were assigned to be my buddies. They called me to discuss the cancer and my surgery and they followed up afterward. It was great to talk to someone who had been through the same thing. Only someone who has gone through this can actually understand how you feel.
Physically I healed pretty quickly. I wish I could say I healed mentally as fast, but I did not. I could not make peace with the fact that I was 38 and had just had cancer. On the outside I was able to function and carry on my normal life, but on the inside, I was depressed and felt so far beyond normal. I was sorry for myself, I was angry and I was scared. Eric and I were in the process of trying for a third baby and instead of a baby, I got cancer. How could I not be angry? And the thought of the cancer coming back kept me up at night. With every little pain or abnormality, I panicked.
Now being 4 years out, I am not as angry or depressed as I was then. I must admit that I still struggle with it and I always fear the monster will be back. Cancer may leave your body, but it never leaves your mind. I am extremely fortunate to have a very supportive family and the most wonderful friends you could ask for. I am amazed and honored by the good nature of the people that love me. I could not have made it through without them. I would also like to thank Eric who was so strong and supportive through the whole ordeal. He was the rock that I needed to hold onto. You get married for better or for worse and he sure held up his half of the bargain. I love him dearly.
I learned a lot by having cancer. I learned what really matters, I learned what a great network of family/friends I have, I learned that I am strong and beautiful, I learned how to welcome prayer into my life, I learned patience and I learned an appreciation for the ordinary. I have finally stopped taking my life and loved ones for granted. For these lessons, I am thankful. I continue to strive to take one day at a time and live my life out loud!
I am so fortunate to have been selected to model for the 2011 Colondar. Now I will get to tell my story and give hope to other young people faced with colon cancer. What an honor for me. If I could help but one person, it is so worth it for me. I feel truly blessed as I had but only one small warning sign that many people would have ignored. I acted upon it and am thankful every day. I am proof that this disease can happen to anyone!