Jeez, where do I begin? I could start by going back to July 17, 2002, when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, but my story really begins in 1972 when I was just a fetus growing in my mother’s belly. As my body was forming, everything was coming along nicely…except for one thing. My intestines were slowly twisting and getting tangled up in my abdomen. I was born with a birth defect called malrotation of the intestines, but, it wouldn’t be until 10 years later that doctors would discover this defect. When I was 10, I was rushed to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain caused by the intestines getting twisted so tightly that it created a major blockage. Over the next year, I underwent three major surgeries to untangle them. Third time’s the charm because it finally took. Sure, I had additional gastrointestinal complications over the next 19 years, but none as serious as when I was 10. That is, until 2002.
Just before my cancer was found, I was working at the American Cancer Society and was invited to attend a colon cancer support group meeting (oh, the irony!) to talk to the attendees about some upcoming events. While I was sitting in the meeting, I started reading the latest ACS health brochure on colorectal cancer and noticed that I had been experiencing some of the symptoms listed. I went home, spoke to my husband about it and the next thing I knew, I was sitting in the gastroenterologist’s office asking for (more like demanding) a colonoscopy. I explained to the doctor that I had been having severe abdominal pain on and off for the last few months and that I had recently noticed heavy bleeding from the rectum. “Oh, I’m sure it’s just hemorrhoids,” he said, dismissively. I told him I was really afraid it might be cancer. Being only 29 years old, he looked at me with skepticism, then reluctantly agreed to perform the colonoscopy and assured me that I was too young for colon cancer. He was a moron.
Three days after the colonoscopy, I received the dreaded phone call. This is how it went:
Dr. Moron: Uh, Mrs. Mir? Your results are back and uh….yeah, it’s cancer. Hang on, I’m gonna have my nurse talk to you.
Me: Wait, what?
Dr. Moron: Yeah, it’s cancer. Hang on…(on hold music starts playing)
Me: Oh. My. God.
And that was the last I heard from Dr. Moron.
So, that was the start of the cancer whirlwind I was about to be swept up in. I met with a rectal surgeon who was a friend of my husband’s family. His name? Wait for it….Dr. Butts! No really, my rectal surgeon’s name is Dr. Butts. With a name like that, how could I go wrong? The amazing and talented Dr. Butts recommended that I see an oncologist before opening me up and extracting the tumor. He referred me to the equally amazing and talented, Dr. Casimir, who prescribed a month of chemo and radiation in hopes of shrinking the tumor. But before I began my treatments, Dr. Casimir advised that I should have my ovaries removed for fear that the cancer would recur in that part of my body. Upon hearing this, I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. My husband and I were devastated. So devastated that we not only got a second opinion, but a third and fourth, too. They all strongly recommended the same thing. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to freeze my eggs because I needed to start treatment right away. It was very difficult for my husband and me to accept the fact that I would not be able to conceive.
Heartbroken and depressed, I started my rounds of chemo and radiation. For the next month, the treatments worked their magic and shrank my tumor. Not that it was a walk in the park. I did experience brief bouts of nausea, vomiting, extreme fatigue and some loneliness due to the fact that I was the youngest patient in the chemo room and had no one to relate to, but the treatments were working. And on October 1, 2002, Dr. Butts sliced the tumor out of my colon with the swiftness of a Samurai warrior. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but he did cut it out of me with hardly any damage to the surrounding tissue. The recovery was tough as my organs took a while to wake up from the anesthesia and I had to wear a temporary colostomy bag for about a month while everything healed. The colostomy bag sucked royally! Even though it wasn’t noticeable, I was so self conscious about it. Something about bodily waste excreting into what looked like a Ziploc bag attached to my stomach gave me the willies. The surgery to reverse the ileostomy couldn’t happen soon enough. But it happened and I celebrated my liberation from the Ziploc bag with a few beverages that I’m pretty sure contained alcohol.
Since then, I’ve had a few complications that usually ended up with me in the emergency room, getting a plastic tube shoved up my nose and down my esophagus to alleviate the painful blockages caused by the scar tissue left behind in my intestines (there go those damn intestines again) from all my previous surgeries …which is about as much fun as, well, having a rubber hose shoved up your nose. But I know it’s a necessary evil if I want to stop writhing in pain. And although it sucks when this happens, these occurrences are few and far between and I’m grateful to be alive. I’ve also accepted that my intestines and I are not friends.
The entire ordeal has taught me a lot and changed me in many ways. A friend once asked me when was the first time I felt like myself after my diagnosis. I don’t think I ever have. I definitely don’t feel like the person I was before my diagnosis and don’t think I ever will. I guess I’ve just accepted my new normal and adapting to a different life; one that I feel is even better than before because now I don’t stress as much and I enjoy more of life than I used to. Life’s too short not to enjoy it. Today, I work at a top cancer hospital connecting patients, caregivers and family members with others who have been through a similar experience in hopes that they will become their source of encouragement and knowledge through their dark journey. I have also developed a support program for young adults called Cancer180 that provides opportunities for those affected by cancer in their 20s and 30s to connect with each other through social outings and activities around the Greater Houston area. That’s been the most fun and very cathartic. I’ve met some of the greatest people in the young adult cancer world who, like me, are living life and making the most of it. All while telling cancer to suck it. I’ve been doing that since 2002.
Marisa Mir – colon cancer survivor – 6 years and counting.