Sisters Jean Lattimore and Michele Sedor have always known the importance of family but had no idea how much they would come to rely on each other.
During a routine physical, Jean’s doctor noticed some rectal bleeding and gave her a take-home stool test. When it came back positive for blood, he scheduled a colonoscopy for the next week. But within a few days she was in so much pain that she went to the emergency room and was given an immediate colonoscopy. Jean had surgery to remove a large tumor and was diagnosed with stage II colon cancer. Her doctor recommended that her 11 siblings get screened, and although a few of them had already had polyps removed, no one had known that it was important enough to discuss.
Eleven weeks later, Jean’s younger sister Michele became the first to have a colonoscopy after her sister’s diagnosis. Despite never having had a single symptom, Michele was shocked to learn that she had stage III colon cancer.
Jean and Michele both had surgery, and they did part of their chemotherapy at the same time. They feel fortunate that none of their other brothers or sisters have had colon cancer, but thankful to have had each other during such a difficult time.
MICHELE’S STORY AS TOLD BY MICHELE:
I didn’t feel sick at all; I felt pretty healthy. My oldest had just graduated from high school; I was planning graduation parties. It was just a shock when my sister Jean got sick, but of course, she had some symptoms. It was her surgeon, Dr. John Ryan, who told me to get screened. It is a picture I’ll never forget, being in the hospital room with Jean and Dr. Ryan, and he looked at me and said, “I think all of you should be tested.” Dr. Ryan is my age and we know him, so when he said, “It’s probably a good idea that you come in and have one,” I listened. I believe that he saved my life. I strongly think that if he hadn’t said that to me, I wouldn’t have gotten a colonoscopy. I don’t think another one of my doctors would have recommended it.
I knew it was something I had to do, but it takes time to schedule one, especially in our area because there aren’t a lot of doctors. I had to get my daughter off to college, but then I went and got my colonoscopy. I opted to go to the hospital and go under, and Dr. Ryan recommending it was always in my mind.
I had all intentions of leaving after my colonoscopy and going to the grocery store, but I woke up and they told me what they had found. I was just shocked and couldn’t understand why I could feel so healthy but have this tumor growing in me that I didn’t even know about. It’s certainly been an interesting journey here. I had stopped drinking about 10 years ago; I wanted to take care of my body and eat healthy and exercise. I felt really good at that point in my life, and to be diagnosed, I really thought that this was a joke. How can I feel so good and be so sick inside my body? But that’s why I feel like it’s such a quiet, sneaky, tricky little disease.
After the colonoscopy, I opted not even to leave the hospital because they could do the surgery the next day. So I had the surgery and I opted at that time to have a total hysterectomy. I only had one ovary anyway because I had a cyst and had it removed; and I had a tube removed years ago because I had a tubular pregnancy. I have three beautiful children and didn’t want anything to come up later.
I was so fearful, because I lost my mother when I was 14, and when I got sick, my youngest daughter was 14. A lot of what I was thinking when I was diagnosed was please God don’t let her lose her mom at that age. It was so difficult for me growing up without a mom. You’re a freshman in high school and your mother passes away, and back then, nobody talked about death or illnesses; it’s much more on the table now. I honestly woke up one morning and was getting ready for school, and one of my sisters-in-law came and told me that I couldn’t go to school because my mom had died. I didn’t even know she was so sick, because we were the younger ones and nobody told us. I was just praying to stay alive long enough to watch my kids grow up. It’s been two years now and my youngest is 16 and I still just pray to give me enough time.
I left the hospital eight days after my surgery on a gorgeous day. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping; the fresh air was wonderful and I was lucky to be alive. We have a native of our community who is involved in research at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and I went to school with his brother. I came home after the hospital and my brother said, “You need to call him and talk to him about it”. So, I called him even though I had never met him; I had all of this anxiety. He spoke with me and, as I hung the phone up, I felt a calm, and I thought I’m going to be okay. He made me feel like, with treatment, this was something we could get through. He talked to me about the options that would probably be involved with my treatment. When I went to see my oncologist, I told him I had talked to someone. He said, “Don’t tell me what he said. I’ll tell you what I think first.” When he told me the exact same thing, I felt confident that I was making the right decision and doing the right thing.
I did Folfox and I had treatment one week on and one week off. I was at home with the fanny pack that pumped the drugs into me 24 hours a day for three days, and I was very fortunate to have such a great support system with my family and the community. That’s why I was able to continue to keep going. It’s so important to have some support in your life. There were days my sister-in-law would come over and I’d be in bed. I’d be going to chemo the next day and I would say, “I can’t do it,” and she would encourage me, as well as my husband; they were encouraging me. I was lucky I had people telling me that and pushing me forward, and they were right. Otherwise, I think it’s difficult, it’s easy to give up because it’s tough at times, but if you have people who are pushing from behind, it makes it easier to get up and go there again. It’s not fun; it’s tough, but you get through it.
Throughout treatment, I was blessed that Jean and I could call each other and talk about the side effects and how we were feeling. It was nice to have that immediate support system of someone so close to me that had gone through it before I had; so, we worked together through that.
At one point, I spoke with my oncologist about the fact that I had announced that I was running for a seat on the county legislative body. I said, “Can I do this? Is it going to harm me? Should I be focusing on this?” He looked at me and said, “You’re going to get through this and you need to live your life. I wouldn’t tell you to not run.” So I did, and I was able to campaign and get out and live my life, even with the time frame of the treatments. I did get elected, and I used that as an opportunity to tell people that you can continue to live and enjoy life, while you are going through treatments.
There were people who did not want to see me get elected and were hoping to use this as an opportunity to say, “How is she going to do this job. She’s sick; she should be taking care of herself.” People tried to utilize my illness as a way to see me not get that seat. I certainly believe that there were people out there that, as with anything, have you in a coffin as soon as you’re diagnosed. You’ve got people out there using this illness as a way to possibly not get you elected. But I looked at the number of elected officials who have battled cancer, and I just did it. If everyone stopped living the moment they were diagnosed with cancer, we’d certainly have a lot less people working. It was important to me, also as an educational piece, to let people know that I was fine and you can be fine too; but it wasn’t always rosy.
I think the message in all of this is that you continue to live. Once you are diagnosed, it’s not a death sentence. You have to keep one foot in front of the other and it’s like my doctor said, “This will be over in six months and you’ll be living a good life.” I look at it now and say not why me, but why not me? I’m in a position that my family is so recognized and we are so large, people can look at me and we’ve shared our story so many times in an effort to get people to understand this is so serious and so sneaky. In my case, it just snuck up on me.
Colon cancer: those are those foreign words. Even though I knew other people who were diagnosed, I don’t think I really knew or understood what it really was until I was diagnosed. They are still such foreign words – words that, until you truly understand your body, you don’t really understand what it is. Science wasn’t my favorite subject and I had to learn all these things after I was diagnosed. What the heck is colon cancer? Where is your colon? What does it do? What are the different parts? It’s been an education.
We all get tired, but it’s a full-time job to get the word out. We have a long way to go. We will continue to address some of the issues, especially the whole insurance thing, where you can’t have a colonoscopy before 50. When I find a few minutes, I want to work with the state, and maybe federal legislators, to maybe lower that age, even though I know it’s a guideline. There’s no reason for people to go through so much when someone in their family has already had colorectal cancer.
With my mother, it was a brain tumor; but we don’t know where it really started. We don’t know how much of what we had was related; maybe it isn’t, maybe it is. My nephew, who is in his thirties, had been having polyps for a while, but I thought it was from my sister-in-law’s family. That was a couple of years before Jean and I were diagnosed, and I remember them talking about it and thinking it must be their family, not ours. Some of my older brothers had gone and had polyps removed, but it wasn’t anything anyone would pick up the phone and talk about. Nobody said, “Hey, I had a colonoscopy and had some polyps, Maybe you should go too.” I don’t know, because even if they had, we would probably have been fighting the insurance companies to even get one at such a young age. It was my sisters who really needed to go and have them because most of my older brothers had had colonoscopies; there were seven boys before Jean. Not all of them had had a colonoscopy, but some of them. As soon as I was diagnosed it was like, “Okay, we can’t fool around with this any more. We all need to get in there and have them.”
All of our energy is focused on getting information out there. You can continue to live a good and healthy life; it’s just about being proactive. I think I’m a little more out in the open about it, not that Jean doesn’t want to share, but because I’m a county legislator I’m in the public eye, so I can tell people. We’ll just continue to fight this fight with colon cancer. I get anxious about it; we’re not on the forefront like breast cancer, but we try to get this on the front page of the paper. We’re certainly making great strides here in our own community, but I know it’s something people still don’t want to talk about.
Right now, my family is working with the Relay for Life. Our county had it years ago but it hasn’t been big lately. We’re trying to revive it and raise money for research and education. With the Relay, I’ve asked to find a male speaker because so often men don’t want to come out and talk about these things. Women seem to share more freely, but I think it’s important that men feel more comfortable coming out and talking about their health issues and talking to their doctor too.
I was stage III and Jean was stage II, yet she had all of the symptoms and I didn’t have any. When I look at the symptoms that they use as guidelines, for a woman those symptoms come every month. I think that’s something we deal with and say, “Okay, it’s that time of month,” and feel that that’s what it’s about. I don’t think that those are very good guidelines to go by and look at as far as symptoms for a woman. I’ve used this as an opportunity to talk, especially to my older daughter who’s 21. I tell her you need to pay attention to your body, look at your stool sometimes. A 21 year-old looks at you like, “Mom, do we really need to be talking about this?” And yes, we do.
You don’t know how much of an impression you leave on your children and your family through all of this. My son applied for a sports scholarship and he had to write about a leader and he wrote about me. He chose to write about me; how I continued to run for county legislator and how strong I stayed through it. He’s sandwiched between two girls and he is kind of quiet, so when I read it, I was in tears. He was 16 when I was diagnosed, so he saw a lot and, of course, the men don’t seem to share as much as the women do about their emotions, and I was worried about how this was going to affect him. When I read the things he wrote, I was so glad that I was able to show him that you are going to come across tough times in your life and you have to keep moving forward, focus on the positive, and know that you are going to get through this. After reading that, I realized that we’ve all learned a little bit about that.
Jean saved my life. If she hadn’t been diagnosed, my cancer would have been much farther along and I wouldn’t be here. I’m grateful that for some reason, my sister and I were chosen, and I’m grateful that we’re using this to be a positive circumstance in our life instead of focusing on the negative part of it.