Almost exactly a year ago at age 43, I was told the words “I’m afraid you have colorectal cancer.” It was March 6, 2014, and I was still a bit groggy from the colonoscopy anesthesia cocktail. My first response was to Google “colorectal cancer survival rates.”
All my blurred vision can focus on is snippets like “3 years” and “death rate.” So, I toss my phone and go back into my anesthesia dream. I made a silent promise to myself to never Google anything else about my diagnosis, a decree that my GI later makes to me anyway, telling me that most of what you will see on the Internet regarding cancer are the sad stories. I decide then and there that while my diagnosis, Stage III colorectal cancer, may be common, my story doesn’t have to be, and that I will take each step of my journey as it comes, as me, and not worry about walking in the footsteps of others. This attitude has served me well throughout my year of treatments, which included 28 radiation and oral chemotherapy treatments, tumor removal and rectum resection surgery, and 9 rounds of chemotherapy infusions. At the time of this writing, my scans show no signs of cancer, and my initial colonoscopy reports are good. It’s a great way to celebrate Colorectal Awareness Month-also known as March.
Before March 6, 2014, or BC (Before Cancer) as I like to call it, I was a generally healthy, super active, athletic kind of a gal, with no family history of colorectal cancer. I had, in the two years prior, modified my food intake to a pescetarian diet, and I stayed away from fast food, soda, cigarettes, and such, and was only an occasional drinker. I was an avid runner, cyclist, swimmer, soccer player and yogi. My ‘rest’ days found me doing weight training. So, when I started having classic colorectal cancer symptoms—constant constipation and blood in my stool—I chalked them up to anything but cancer. Internal hemorrhoids, maybe? Some reaction to changes in my diet? Or to excessive training? Because I didn’t even consider cancer an explanation (and I may be a tad stubborn), I put off rushing to the doctor.
In hindsight, had I looked up “blood in stool” on WebMD, maybe I would have gone sooner…okay, probably not. When I told my ObGyn about my symptoms, a concerned look immediately clouded her cheery personality. She recommended I get to a GI as soon as possible, which I did. While I advise others to get checked out much sooner than I did, I do take small comfort in knowing that my tumor was so slow growing that the symptoms did not manifest themselves for almost two years, says my radiation oncologist. So the extra month or so that I put off going to the doctor did not make a huge difference in my diagnosis or prognosis…but you don’t want to take that chance. A cancer diagnosis is one of the worst surprises you can ever receive. So many things swirl through your head and heart. I won’t even bother trying to explain it here, other than to say it shoves your mortality in your face with a vengeance. And, that in-your-face-ness of cancer doesn’t go away with clear scans and clean blood work. Once you have it, it really never goes away, because the fear of it is always there, and everywhere you look someone is suffering a relapse of cancer, dying of cancer, or watching a loved one endure cancer. Have you ever bought a car, and then everywhere you go, you suddenly see that make and model on every road and highway? Having cancer is like that. You try to ignore it, but it’s all around you like never before.
Even so, I am overjoyed to be celebrating and advocating colorectal cancer awareness this March. Sharing my story with others via Facebook (you can follow my journey here) has prompted more than a handful of my friends and family to go get colonoscopies and address their symptoms. Luckily, none of them have faced a cancer diagnosis. But, it is worth mentioning that with early detection, colorectal cancer is extremely treatable and beatable. I encourage all of you to pay attention to your body. Don’t try to self-diagnose, like I did. Don’t wait to seek medical counsel if you have symptoms. And even more importantly, start educating yourself about cancer prevention through diet, exercise, and reducing your use of harmful chemicals via food, cosmetics, and household products. Although I considered myself to be a healthy eater before, I have drastically modified my food intake now that I have an appetite again and my taste buds have returned to normal. I have made other lifestyle changes to reduce my risk of a recurrence. I don’t want to walk around being paranoid; at the same time, I am not willing to invite cancer back into my body if I can help it.
In case you didn’t know, the current going age for a first routine colonoscopy is 45. However, if you have a history of colorectal cancer in your immediate family up to and including second cousins, consider getting checked 10 years before the age of your family member’s diagnosis. For example, since I was diagnosed at 43, my kids should get their first colonoscopy at age 33.
This March, I am thankful to be alive, healthy, and working my way back to my full athletic potential. One way I will celebrate is to try to defend my title as Overall Female Survivor for the S.C.O.P.E. 5K Run benefiting colorectal cancer research and support here in Houston, Texas. If you are in the area, feel free to register and join team Fight Like a Boss (FLAB, as my funny friends like to say): http://www.thedriven.net/event.race_reg/eid/1225134579
Chances are there are similar events scheduled in your area. Check them out, and, if you have any symptoms, go get them checked out. Let me be your cautionary tale. There is enough suffering in the world.
Happy Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month! For more information and further resources, visit any of the following sites: