QUEAH’S COLONDAR BIO
Although African-Americans have a higher incidence of colorectal cancer, Queah Habern never knew that she would need to be concerned about it. After months of misdiagnosis, she ended up in surgery for appendicitis but was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer just two days later. Upon finishing chemotherapy, she started sharing her story to prove that you don’t have to be a 50-year-old white guy to get colorectal cancer.
Queah is passionate about how she lives her life, but tries not to take herself too seriously. She wants people to know that early detection and a sense of humor are important tools in beating cancer.
QUEAH’S STORY AS TOLD BY QUEAH
My story begins with a misdiagnosis. I think that’s huge because most of us were misdiagnosed. I was working at Nordstrom and I had just moved to Houston. I had only been here about a year or a year and half, maybe less, and my benefits had started kicking in so I finally found a doctor.
I went to the doctor because I had bloating and couldn’t get rid of it. I even tried colon cleansing teas. I went to the doctor and she gave me a physical exam and I told her my symptoms. I was eating like a little bird and I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so full. She said you might be experiencing stomach irritation, and she mentioned IBS. She checked my rectum for blood and asked if I had seen any dark stools or blood and I said no. She decided to give me medication, so I picked up the prescription but it didn’t work – and I didn’t want to believe it was anything worse. I had gone seven months and it had gotten so bad, for maybe two months I was always getting sick. I had started working at a new job and for two months I was going back and forth to my general practitioner trying to figure out what was wrong. She was giving me scripts for this that and the other, but nothing worked.
Finally I was doubled over in pain and I had to call in sick to work. I thought it would be okay if I just lay down for a while, but I drove myself to the emergency room because I could barely walk. I told them I needed to be admitted because the pain was so bad, and the nurse could tell so she rushed me on to a stretcher. The doctor hadn’t seen me yet but the pain was so bad that the nurse gave me morphine. I was so freaked out because I realized it was bad because of the drugs they were giving me. My boyfriend showed up and I saw the doctor about an hour later, but I waited seven hours while they were prepping me for surgery. Initially they told me they didn’t know what was wrong, but they would go in laparoscopically and clean out whatever was making me sick.
My mom rushed in and when I woke up in the hospital, the surgeon who saw me told me that when he went in he saw that my appendix was about to rupture. There was a six-inch tumor on the side of my appendix that caused it to almost rupture. He took out my appendix, the tumor and some of my colon. He said, “Don’t worry, you haven’t been diagnosed with cancer or anything like that, but this is what we do to cancer patients to make sure we get everything out that we can get out.”
I found out I had cancer two days after I had surgery, and I just remember thinking this can’t be happening, it was surreal – you mean this is happening to me? Can this be happening? He took out a good part of colon, I think six inches, and when they did a biopsy on the large tumor, that one was not cancerous. But when they went in to biopsy the colon they found a tiny two centimeter tumor that was cancer. It was stage III and had gone through several layers of the colon wall, which was scary because he told me that if he hadn’t taken out that part of colon on a whim I could still be walking around with cancer.
When I found out what kind of cancer it was, everyone was asking me my family history, but nobody has ever had colon cancer in my family. I felt like it was a fluke that I ended up with it because I couldn’t trace it back anywhere. I believe in eating what you want in moderation so I would have a pork chop here and ice cream there, but I ate really healthy. I just couldn’t figure out why it was happening to me, and after a while I did some research and found out that it didn’t really happen to people like me – that it was typically an old man’s disease – an old white man’s disease.
After I found out I had cancer, my thinking was that I just wanted to do whatever I needed to do to get rid of it. Whatever the doctors wanted me to do, I would do it. When they told me chemo would be mandatory because of the stage, I was all for it. I didn’t really know what chemo was all about because I never knew anyone who was doing it. My grandmother had breast cancer but she went through radiation. Chemo was out there and I heard stories about it, but I didn’t really know what to expect. At that point I just wanted to survive, I just wanted to live and that was the most important thing to me. Every day was just getting me closer to the day I would start my chemo. I started on the first Tuesday in March and I just remember thinking that when I walked into the cancer clinic that I didn’t want to be there. It was really scary. Earlier in the beginning of the month I met with the on-site RN, who is the main nurse who gives all the chemo education. I remember sitting across from her hearing about the chemo I was going to get and the side effects. The drug I was going to be on was so new that some of the side effects they didn’t know about yet.
I was in shock. I didn’t know how to digest all of the information. It took me a few days because I wasn’t prepared to hear what she was telling me. I was blindsided and it was worse than I ever thought, when I went in for my first round I was scared to death. The first two weeks of chemo I was okay, I thought that if I had to go ten more rounds like that, I would be okay. But I wasn’t okay because every round of chemo made me sicker and more depressed.
I had been going to cancer counseling and around the time of my second round of chemo I got married. When I started going to my cancer counseling, the counselor told me a story about another woman she was counseling who was in a marriage and as soon as she was diagnosed her husband left her. I was thinking that I was so lucky, here I was going through chemo and my boyfriend wanted to marry me. I thought I was so lucky.
While we were dating the relationship was really good, but a month after we got married he turned into a person I didn’t recognize. He was abusive and it was very stressful. He wasn’t actually abusive while we were dating, but after we got married he was making demands, he was very selfish. I’m divorced now; my divorce was final in April of 2006. It was a bad situation, but at the time I had to deal with him and go through ten more rounds of chemo.
I kept a diary throughout the majority of my chemo, while I was going to counseling and while my husband and I were arguing. He and I started going to counseling together, and that helped a little bit because I was able to express what I was feeling. The counseling that my husband and I went to was a good thing, and I think that not enough people believe in counseling. They think that something has to be really wrong or you shouldn’t go, but it’s a really healthy thing to do. It helped me put some things back together, and it helped me realize I’m not by myself. There are other people who have the same experiences, emotions and fears. It was tough but I survived it all, I look back and I don’t know how – I was just so focused. I wanted to live so that I could leave him, I wanted to live so that I could have a family and go back to this great job. I just wanted to live to have a future and be happy and have all those dreams I had when I was a kid. I wanted to experience all of that.
I felt like if I gave up I would never get to that point. I didn’t think I ended up with cancer so that I could die at that point in my life. There’s so much more that I needed to do, that I had to do, and cancer was one of those things. But it’s hard when you are on so many medications with so many side effects. I felt like whatever they gave me, I would have all of the side effects.
I was okay until round nine of chemo. Once I hit my ninth round I wanted to give up; I wanted to stop it because I was so sick. I couldn’t move. I would get up and throw up, go back to bed, go to the kitchen and get a little bit to eat and then throw it up. If I could get up and lie down on the couch I would fall asleep 30 minutes later. I don’t know if the doctors thought I was making it up or not, but the doctors were telling me that they didn’t understand why I was so sick. That made me so depressed. My neuropathy got so bad that my hands hurt and were numb and ached at the same time. I couldn’t wear gloves and I couldn’t grip anything – the numbness would work its way up from my feet to my knees, and I was miserable. I just kept thinking there’s got to be something wrong with me because other people can do this. On top of that I was having allergic reactions to the nausea medicine they put me on. The type of reaction I was having was not just that it didn’t work; I was having violent muscle spasms and I had to go to the emergency room. While I was in the hospital the nurse gave me an extra dose of Ativan and told me to relax when in fact I was really having an allergic reaction, but we didn’t know it.
The worst was when I was home and I couldn’t control my neck, head, or arms – imagine having body parts you can’t control! My husband tried to massage me and he gave me doses of Ativan. I wanted to go to the hospital, but he said, “No, just take a hot bath.” I said, “If you don’t take me to the hospital I’ll take myself,” so he finally got up and took me to the hospital. When I went in to the emergency room nurse, a nurse at the counter was trying to get me to fill out the paperwork, but a nurse in the back heard me and saw the reaction I was having. She said, “You might be having an allergic reaction. What medication are you on? What are you taking?” I listed the drugs I was taking and somehow remembered the nausea medication, and she said that she thought that was it. She immediately took me to the back and gave me two high doses of Benadryl and within 10 minutes the symptoms had stopped. She said that the only reason she knew to do it is because she had the same reaction herself. I got lucky because this nurse had the same reaction. That’s just an example of the little things and the issues that I was dealing with. It seemed like everything that was happening – oh this only happens to a small percentage of women, but it happened to me. It sucked but I did get through it.
The beginning of my last round of chemo was August 15, 2005. I had a PET scan shortly after that and it was clean, and I had another one in May and it was still clean – so I’m officially in remission! I’m still at the doctor every single week, seriously, but I don’t mind. I go every Friday to the cancer clinic and they do blood work to make sure that the counts are good and everything. The cancer center has this distinctive smell, and I associate it with cancer; I still get a weak stomach when I go in for the blood work. On Fridays my oncologist is there and even though I don’t have an appointment I get to see him and consult with him if I’ve been having an issue over the week.
I’m glad to be able to do that, especially at my age – I’m so young I want the opportunity to stop anything before it starts, before the cells start dividing. So I have a follow-up every week, I see my oncologist, and I get some of the injections I had while I had chemo. My blood counts are still really low and I still have to take the nausea medicine. It’s the weirdest thing, the doctor says the chemo is over so you shouldn’t be so nauseous, but he still has to give me refills.
There are a lot of good things that came out of my whole cancer experience, but one good thing is that you can write off your medication on your taxes! That’s like $1000!
Update: It’s with sadness that we share Queah passed away in March 2011.