“Oh, The Places You Will Go!” My Journey with Cancer
“I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I’ve bought a big bat. I’m all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”
For as long as I can remember, I have been a huge Dr. Seuss fan. As a kid, his stories made me fall in love with reading and books. As a college student, I learned about some of the deeper meanings behind his stories. As a teacher and now an assistant principal of an elementary school, I admire the way Dr. Seuss gets children to think for themselves, think outside the box, and believe that everyone has something to contribute to the world – no matter how small. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I turned to some of his stories and quotes for strength and laughter. The quote above is one that meant a lot to me because I felt it represented me in my journey as a fighter. The line about trouble coming from ahead and behind eventually took on a new meaning for me because in my case, it turned out to be so true!
On April 14th, 2009, I got the call I was not expecting at all. A biopsy that had to be done on my left breast four days earlier had come back positive for breast cancer – specifically DCIS stage 0 grade 3. To say that I fell apart is an understatement. You see, this was the second cancer I had been diagnosed with in two years.
My journey with cancer began in March of 2007 when I ended up in the emergency room surrounded by nurses and doctors who were telling me they were surprised I had not had a heart attack because I was missing two thirds of my blood volume. At the time I had convinced myself that there was something wrong with my appendix, but it quickly became apparent that there was something much more serious going on. After five blood transfusions over a twenty-four hour time period, I was wheeled into the operating room where they found a cancerous tumor in my ascending colon. Surgeons removed about eight inches of my ascending colon, my right fallopian tube and ovary, and 15 lymph nodes – 8 of which turned out to be positive. My diagnosis? At the age of 39, I had Stage IIIC Colon Cancer. Trouble had hit me from behind…literally.
I was put on Folfox4 as my chemo regime and due to my struggling blood numbers, it took me eight months to complete six months worth of chemo. I was determined not to let chemo get the better of me! Believe it or not, I went to work every single day during the eight months that I was on chemo. Work kept my mind busy and being around all the children helped lift my spirits. I needed my life to be as close to normal as possible for myself and for my family. Going to work made me feel strong. I felt that if I could continue my life as it was before my diagnosis, it meant that I would be okay and beat it. I did not want anyone’s pity. I did not want people looking at me and only seeing a victim – I wanted to be seen as a fighter.
When I came home from the hospital I was so lost. Here I was, not the typical victim of colon cancer. I was a woman and I was 39 years old! I did not fit the typical mold of a Colon Cancer patient. Everything I searched for about Colon Cancer referred to men or people over the age of 50. When I tried to find a support group, the nearest one was two hours away and mostly consisted of older men. I had to find something! I needed questions answered. I needed to feel like I wasn’t alone in this crazy journey! After searching on the Internet, I found a great online support group for people under the age of 50 who are battling Colorectal Cancer. The Colon Club became my rock and my support system and I finally began to feel like I was not alone! Having this amazing support group helped me to fully understand what was going on with my body and allowed me to be a better advocate for myself. I became a stronger person and was no longer embarrassed to talk about my colon. Instead, I began to talk very openly about my experience and encouraging others to get screened early.
As part of my desire to educate others, I applied to be a model in a calendar that educates people about colorectal cancer and how it can affect women as well as men and those under the age of 50. The Colon Club puts together this wonderful calendar they call The Colondar every year. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would be picked, but one day in February of 2008 I got the call that I had been selected for the 2009 Colondar. Being Miss March for the calendar has been such an honor and it has opened so many doors for me. I have been interviewed for newspapers, TV, my college alumni magazine, and my sorority alumni magazine. I have been speaking up about the need for early detection and getting the word out about being your own advocate with your doctor about signs and symptoms. If I had to go through Colon Cancer, I needed to have a purpose – and mine is to educate everyone about Colon Cancer and to make them understand that they don’t have to be afraid to talk about their butts!
I had been NED (no evidence of disease) for 16 months when I got the call that I had breast cancer. Trouble was now hitting me from the front. I was assured it was not my Colon Cancer coming back and spreading, but a totally separate cancer.
After I felt apart initially, I picked myself up and got to fighting. Due to the amount of areas in my left breast that had linear calcifications, my surgeon told me I would have to have a mastectomy of my left breast. I then met with my oncologist who laid out all of the statistics for me, which led me to make the decision to have a double mastectomy. I did not want to find myself in this situation again 5 or 10 years from now. I had a lot of people who were shocked by my decision to remove my right breast, which was healthy, but it is my body, my fight. The double mastectomy was my “big bat” and I was going to fight back and win!
On May 15th, 2009, I had a double mastectomy and began the reconstruction process. My surgeon placed tissue expanders under my chest muscles that she will fill every week until I am back to the size I was before all of this happened. After 3 months, I will have another surgery to get breast implants. There will be two more surgeries after that to complete the reconstruction process and I was told that by Christmas of this year, I would be finished the reconstruction process. Since I was stage 0 and my sentinel nodes came back clean, I will not need chemo. I am now back to being NED!
Two cancers in two years. Two. What are the odds? But it happened, and you know what? This journey has made me who I am today. I am stronger. I am a fighter. I am a winner. I speak out about Colon Cancer almost daily to whomever will listen and now I have begun to encourage everyone to get a mammogram and not put it off. My mammogram saved my life and it was my first one! So as you can see, my troubles did in deed have trouble with me!
Stage IIIC Colon Cancer dx March 2007
Stage 0 Grade 3 Breast Cancer DCIS dx April 2009