One winter after beating colorectal cancer, Mary Salvi, a busy mom of three, was in the grocery store, craving the out-of-season and expensive fresh berries arranged before her. She thought it’d be frivolous to buy them though, especially because her family needed so many other items.
She pushed the cart forward, but then stopped again to reconsider.
“I’m worth the extra couple bucks for fresh berries in the winter,” she thought. “It’s so bizarre, thinking about berries in winter—they cost so much, and I wouldn’t eat them normally, but why would I not make something like that a priority for me, too?”
So Mary bought the berries. This small act of making herself a priority is one many women often forgo in lieu of competing responsibilities. And this goes for taking care of their own health, as many moms with full arms and preoccupied minds will tell you.
A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that many women report barriers to gaining healthcare—beyond whether they have health insurance and access to medical providers—such as workplace benefits and flexibility, childcare, and transportation. These challenges impact women with low incomes more than their higher-earning peers.
How can women ensure their health is as well protected as those around them? The answer may lie in personal empowerment. While there is no singular definition of empowerment, the World Bank says that empowerment is the process of increasing the capacity of individuals or groups to make choices and to transform those choices into desired actions and outcomes.
At the Alliance, staff empower women by providing the education and resources needed to take health into their own hands—and that includes information on why colorectal cancer screening is important and how screening can be obtained.
Mary Salvi says she has always taken care of her health, perhaps taking after her mother, who at 74 years old still teaches fitness classes at her local hospital’s wellness center.
“I’ve always made all my appointments, always done my mammograms, always got my teeth cleaned regularly,” she says.
But, she says, she sees many women her age not making their health a priority.
“They’re very busy scheduling everyone else in their family and making sure all these other things get taken care of,” Mary says. “Getting cancer really made me realize that I need to make myself a priority, and I did a pretty good job to begin with—I’m not a martyr. But it’s the little things.”
Like the berries.
Mary says empowerment is having the confidence to speak up.
“I think a lot of people are very shy about bringing forth their concerns, especially young people, and especially regarding symptoms and your own healthcare when something is not right,” she says.
It may have been that confidence to speak up that saved her life.
Knowing your options
The year Mary turned 50, she was in great health, at least outwardly. Sure, there were winter colds and a case of summer poison ivy, but her doctor was otherwise confident that Mary had years of good health ahead. Still, Mary was due to be screened for colorectal cancer.
Major healthcare guidelines recommend that most people begin getting screened for colorectal cancer at age 50, or sometimes earlier depending on the patient’s risk factors and family history.
In Brava, a magazine for women local to Madison, Wisconsin, Mary read about Cologuard. Cologuard is a stool DNA-based test for colorectal cancer screening in average risk adults. The test is prescribed by a healthcare provider and a kit mailed to a patient’s home. After collecting a stool sample, the patient returns the sample to the lab where it is analyzed to check for blood and changes in DNA linked to colorectal cancer.
This sounded like a great, convenient option for Mary, who was 50 at the time and considered a normal-risk individual.
“Like many people, I was not excited about the prep for a colonoscopy, so I talked to my primary care physician about Cologuard,” Mary says. ‘We discussed my concerns and all sorts of things about screening, but I was the perfect candidate, being 50, no risk factors, no symptoms, no family history. I was thrilled.”
Mary completed her test soon after it arrived and found it easy to use. When her result came back positive, she went on to get a diagnostic colonoscopy. Inside her colon, clinicians found a large mass and diagnosed her with colon cancer. In additional testing, they found the cancer had spread to her lung. Mary went from being the picture of good health to a stage IV (metastatic) cancer patient almost overnight.
“We were all pretty stunned that fall,” Mary says. “I went from being this really easy patient with nothing to comment on most of the time, to, ‘Oh, now I’ve got all this stuff going on.”
Mary’s treatment team was optimistic.
“They said, ‘Your biggest advantage is you’re in such great shape, young, and healthy,’” Mary says. “For cancer, I was so young.”
Another advantage, Mary says, was her family and friends. Her husband went to every chemotherapy treatment with her. His work schedule allowed him to come home during long infusions.
“I was very lucky,” she says.
Friends would do grocery shopping, laundry, and make meals.
Her children, meanwhile, took the diagnosis in stride. Her oldest son was just beginning his freshman year of college, while her daughter was a junior in high school, busy preparing for college and taking tests. Her 8-year-old son spent a lot of nights at friends’ houses.
“He had so many playdates and sleepovers,” Mary says. “This was a wonderful time for him.”
Today, Mary, 53, has been finished with chemotherapy for almost two years. She remains cancer-free but has follow-up exams every three months and colonoscopies every three years.
“When I was growing up, cancer equaled death,” she says. “Today, more and more, it doesn’t mean that. It’s treatment, and it’s follow-up, but more and more people survive a cancer diagnosis.”
Her confidence to speak up, ask questions, and ensure she received the colon cancer screening test that was the right one for her may be the reason why Mary is one of the growing number of success stories.