I was diagnosed with stage IV rectal cancer when I was 31. I had no family history of the disease, and I was well below the "normal" age of diagnosis. My first sign that something might be wrong was when I noticed some blood when I went to the bathroom. "Probably just a hemorrhoid," I thought. But I knew blood in the stool or urine was something that I should talk to a doctor about. I didn’t notice the blood again, but when I saw my doctor months later, I mentioned it. He figured it was probably just a hemorrhoid.
In July of 1997, I started a new sales job that required travel. I started noticing sometimes after I flew, I'd have constipation and a little blood on the tissue. I was so busy working and traveling that I figured the new schedule and travel was throwing my system off and causing the hemorrhoids to act up. Even so, there were months between symptoms and each time, I'd write it off. I figured if it was something serious, I'd have other symptoms or it would be happening more frequently. Right?
Fast forward to a year later – it was July of 1998. I had just returned from a trip to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks with a coworker. We'd had so much fun hiking and whitewater rafting but, after a summer off, it was time to get organized and make plans for the national sales conference. I made what turned out to be a fateful decision to visit my parents in Florida on the way to the conference.
A couple weeks before I went home, I had a bowel movement that looked like it was marbled with blood. "Whoa," I thought, "That does not look right!" I called my mom and asked her to make me an appointment with her gastroenterologist.
The gastroenterologist told me she could see the blood but couldn't see the source and that she'd like to do a colonoscopy on Monday. I didn't want to spend my vacation drinking bowel cleanser and doing a colonoscopy, but as it turned out, her caution saved my life. She found a lemon-sized growth in my colon. I was admitted to the hospital that day, and my operation was the next day. During the course of the surgery, they resected my colon at the rectal sigmoid bend and removed a foot of my colon. They also discovered a small two-centimeter lesion in my liver, and they resected that lobe.
I had a double lumen port installed in my left shoulder. One week of every month they hooked up a line to the port and I received my dose of 5-FU and Leucovorin. (All the current drugs were in trials and not available for my use. I thought about a trial, but my oncologist doubted I'd be chosen since all the visible cancer was removed during my surgery and there'd be no way to track if a new drug was working.)
My side effects were pretty mild – I lost a little hair, a little weight, had mouth sores and an urge to know where a bathroom was at all times! My oddest side effect came while I was completing my radiation therapy – I became lactose intolerant. I can only guess that the little cilia in the colon were temporarily stunned by the radiation. I know my oncologist thought I was a little crazy, but all I can tell you is that after my breakfast of milk and cereal my stomach would swell out like I was 3 months pregnant and I could hear hissing and popping in my colon (And no, I wasn't eating Rice Crispies!)
After two months, we began my radiation treatments. I did 28 days of radiation and was switched to a pump for continuous infusion chemotherapy. I found the regimen of radiation and chemotherapy to be grueling. By lunchtime, it felt like a fog was pressing down on me and my energy was gone. I'd sleep for a few hours, eat dinner and then be back in bed. Fatigue, lack of motivation and finally radiation burn marked this time for me. I completed eight months of therapy and experienced increasing fatigue as the treatment progressed. I finished in May of 1999, spent the summer regaining my strength, and then returned to work.
This year marks my 15-year anniversary, and I plan to celebrate accordingly! I have been cancer free since my initial surgery and was released from my oncologist's care in January 2009. I continue to monitor my blood work and have regular colonoscopies.
Regarding my age of diagnosis, throughout my treatment, I was always the youngest in the room. Although my oncologist assured me he was treating 10 other people in my age range, I only saw two during the whole treatment. I felt like I was the only one my age with colon cancer. I was desperate to know that I could survive a "terminal" diagnosis. This was not how I planned to spend my 30's! I finally found a community online and "met" other people, some even my age, with similar diagnoses. It was a relief to know I wasn't alone and that someone knew and understood just what I was going through. This community eventually gelled into what is now the Colon Cancer Alliance.
I decided early on in treatment that I had a choice. If I only had so much time to live, did I want to live my life with despair and depression or hope and joy? Every day I chose joy. I figured if my odds were one in whatever, why couldn't I be the one? Why couldn't you be the one? If I can celebrate my 15th year anniversary surviving stage IV rectal cancer while only having been treated with the old drugs, what can you accomplish with the new therapies? There is more and more hope for survival, but there is still more education that needs to be done. Thankfully we have organizations like the Colon Cancer Alliance and the Colon Club, who play a vital role in raising awareness and educating about colon cancer, one of the biggest cancer threats.
15-year stage IV survivor