By Tamara Barber, Ally Author
Yvonne Vidal is determined to find purpose in living with inoperable stage IV colorectal cancer. She hopes her story will help other patients find their communities of support, and that her experience will embolden others to advocate for their health, even amid the uncertainty of COVID-19.
Three years ago, at the age of 32, doctors found Yvonne’s cancer after extreme fatigue and tachycardia brought her to the ER twice in two weeks. On her second visit, she pushed for tests that would get to the root of her symptoms, due to a family history of heart disease. A CT scan that day revealed spots on her liver and ultimately led to her diagnosis.
“I said I wasn’t leaving the ER until I knew what was wrong with me,” Yvonne said. “If I hadn’t done that, who knows if or when I would have been diagnosed?”
Yet the news of her cancer coincided with another family crisis; Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico – where Yvonne is from – that same week. In Utah, thousands of miles away from her family, Yvonne and her husband processed the shock of her diagnosis while cut off from – and worried for – her family in the aftermath of the hurricane.
“The combination of the diagnosis and the situation in Puerto Rico has been the hardest part of the past three years,” Yvonne said. “My whole world crumbled within days.”
Yvonne started her treatment plan feeling alone. As a newlywed who was planning to have a family, she struggled to incorporate cancer into her identity and to find others who were going through the same thing.
So she built her own community. She started an Instagram account a year after she began treatment, and she uses it to show “how terrible and how great each day can be” with cancer, sometimes referred to as “Mr. C“ in her posts. She gets real about the hard parts of her experience like peeling hands and feet, nausea, and pain from her treatments. She celebrates her milestones, including a CT scan that revealed incredible shrinkage in her liver tumors a year ago. And she posts about what brings her joy in the every day – a good meal, cuddling with her puppy, heading to work, or putting her feet up in her backyard during a hot summer day.
Through this, she’s connected with other young patients who have become good friends, despite never meeting in-person. Even though she has strong support from her friends and family, she says, “it’s sometimes even nicer to talk to a patient, to someone who is also going through it.”
Volunteering with the Colorectal Cancer Alliance has also helped her find the connection she was missing earlier on.
“Getting to know the staff and volunteers at the Alliance validates why I started sharing my story on social media,” Yvonne said. “I want people to hear the stories of everyday survivors – who they are and what it’s like to go through the ups and downs of a diagnosis and treatment.”
COVID-19 has brought the importance of community into even more focus for Yvonne. She says that “even if you are physically alone, you can always find a way to connect with others. I worry that, with the virus on everyone’s mind, people are not getting screened or are not getting treatment.”
Yvonne now lives in Texas, one of the current hotspots for COVID-19, and she has continued with chemotherapy throughout the pandemic. Her hospital has longer days and spaces out appointments so that waiting rooms are less crowded. Her oncology team sees with her via telemedicine appointments in between treatment cycles. And although patients are not able to have visitors with them, the nurses are her on-site community.
Living with stage IV has its unique challenges; setbacks feel inevitable. On top of this, the pandemic has added another level of anxiety for all cancer patients, which can compound feelings of isolation. Yvonne’s story is a reminder that even in a worldwide pandemic, advocacy and awareness are vital in the mission to end colorectal cancer. And through communities – both virtual and in real life – patients can play an active role in that fight.
You can find with Yvonne regularly posting on Instagram as @warriorjeva.
About the Ally Author: As a two-time survivor of young-onset stage III colon cancer, Tamara Barber is on a mission to educate others on the risk factors and symptoms that require screening. She lives outside Boston, Massachusetts with her husband, three kids, and a dog.
Don't miss another story.
Subscribe to our newsletter!