When Stage III colon cancer survivor Vicki Barilleaux
lost her sister to colon cancer in 2004, she turned her grief and awareness into action. She became connected with the Colon Cancer Alliance, and has made it her mission to spread the word about the importance of getting screened. Since 2013, she has been able to raise more than $4,000 with the help of her coworkers at Sam Houston State University
, and has also participated as a feature video in our Tomorrow Can’t Wait
campaign. She spoke with us about the importance of sharing her story, her tips on strong fundraising, and breaking down the barriers associated with talking about this disease.
Why do you feel it's so important to share your story and your sister's story with others?
In 2002 at the age of 47 I was diagnosed with colon cancer. I was advised to speak with my siblings about being screened. My brother and sister where each in their fifties - past the age when they should have been routinely screened. Each were reluctant to have a colonoscopy.
Two years after my diagnosis, in September 2004, I received a phone call that my sister was hospitalized with unexplained vomiting. She had a CAT scan that was inconclusive because she had fluid in her abdomen. I remember hanging up the phone telling my husband it was colon cancer and it was bad. The next day my worse fear was confirmed. My first conversation with my sister after her diagnosis, she told me “That test was nothing - I should have been scanned.”
During her surgery, it was found that her cancer was inoperable, and that the prognosis was poor. From diagnosis to death was 75 days. It was at this point I realized I needed to talk about this disease. Not to tell my story, but to share my sister’s story which she cannot tell. Mine is an example of what can happen. I had a symptom, was scanned, diagnosed, and treated. Her story is what unfortunately often happens. By the time she had a symptom, the cancer was too advanced to successfully treat.
You’ve raised more than $4,000 as part of Dress In Blue Day since 2013. What would you say has been your secret in regards to being able to do such strong fundraising?
Asking people for money is something that can be difficult for many - myself included. People can often be overwhelmed by the thought of planning a large fundraiser. I have found simple events work best for me. Each Dress in Blue Day, my director allowed each person in our department to pay $5.00 to wear blue jeans on that day. Often when presented with this simple request, people donate more than the requested $5.00. During this same time, I approach family and friends by emailing information about my Dress in Blue Day donation link.
Why do you feel that people are so sheepish when it comes to talking about this disease?
It seems like everything about colon cancer is uncomfortable. It is a personal subject that people are uncomfortable to talk about. The mental aspects of preparing for the possible results of being diagnosed with this cancer and the prominent topic of the prep for a colonoscopy each make people uncomfortable. As I was told early on, each of us needs to come out of our comfort zone and talk about this embarrassing disease. I tell my people that the prep for a colonoscopy is easier than one round of chemo. Do this test, stop this preventable cancer before it can start.
What are your tips for others who are suffering through this disease, or are caring for someone with this disease?
As a patient, you are your best advocate. It is important to ask many questions and to realize it is your right to ask for second opinions. I also found there is also support outside of the medical community. When I was undergoing post chemotherapy and adjusting to life with an ostomy, I found Colon Cancer Alliance and their patient helpline. Through the Buddy Program, I found a someone who had lived what I was going through. Knowledge through experience is invaluable. My Buddy became my best resource throughout my treatment.