In the spring of 2008 things were looking pretty good. I was a 46-year-old, divorced, single mom of a then 20 year old, working full time and part time and was just enjoying life. I was busy, involved in many activities, my bills were paid and I had no worries. Well, almost none. I had had several bouts with skin cancer, but having been a sun worshipper most of my life, I couldn’t complain about the effects. Both my parents had had bouts with skin cancer too, but that was it, no other cancer in the family.
On May 15th, I woke up with what I thought was a stomach ache that just didn’t want to go away. All day it seemed to get worse and worse. By that evening I could hardly walk and so my daughter came home from the University of Minnesota and took me to the hospital. That was about 10 P.M. and it wasn’t until 3:30 A.M. that they sent me for a CAT Scan, because after much testing they just couldn’t figure out what was wrong. The doctor came back in the room with this look on his face that meant something was very wrong. He said, “Becky, there’s a mass and we think it’s cancer”, and my whole world changed.
I was in the hospital for ten days. Ten days of worry, testing, scans, surgery and a lot of bonding with the nurses. My room was called Party Central by the nurses because of the constant stream of visitors, cards, calls, flowers and attention. Even my dog came to the hospital for a visit!! During that time, a colonoscopy confirmed that the tumor had closed off my colon, a scan confirmed that it had grown past the colon walls, wrapped around it and into the lymph node area. Laparoscopic surgery removed the tumor, 8 inches of colon and 17 lymph nodes. My oncologist (my new best friend!!) decided that even though the nodes weren’t affected, it would be only a short time before they would have been, so they labeled me with Stage III Colon Cancer.
Up until this point, I had been living with a very tired feeling all the time and was doctoring for what my internist thought was asthma because I was having a hard time catching my breath. Our Minnesota winter was making it hard for me to breathe outside. Turns out I was very anemic and B-12 deficient. The doctors told me that they couldn’t believe that I had “cognitive thinking” because my hemoglobin was so low. After a PET Scan to rule out the spread of cancer in my system, I was ready to move forward with treatment.
Chemotherapy started a month later and consisted of 5FU, Leucovorin, Oxalliplatin and Avastin on a clinical trial, which I qualified for because of my age and size of the tumor. They felt that it had been growing for a year to be the baseball size that it was. My treatment cycle was every other week, with continuous 5FU infusion in a pack for 46 hours. I nicknamed the pack “Walter” because he was my constant companion at that time. Life was far from normal. I had to take extra iron pills and have B-12 shots. I was on three types of anti-nausea medication. My hair fell out from the chemo, I had constant nosebleeds, lost 55 pounds, but was able to keep my sense of humor along the rough way.
The medical bills were coming in faster than I could pay them so my friends held a benefit for me which was very successful and helped me get through everything emotionally and financially. I tried working part time, at first only 20 hours a week because I could hardly hold my head up from the fatigue.
I finished the first six months of aggressive treatment and then started the second phase (another six months) of Avastin only, the clinical trial drug, which was much easier on my system. My hair grew back and I could work 30 hours, which I needed to get my regular insurance back and go off Cobra.
Still overwhelmed with fatigue though, I had to force myself to try and live a somewhat normal life. Walking was tough because of the dizziness. I fell several times because of the lasting neuropathy in my feet. I had several issues with my power port and had to go back in to have the first one surgically removed and a new one installed about halfway through the 13 months of total treatment. It was always something, or so it seemed.
The very expensive drug Avastin is usually used on Stage IV chemo patients and is being used on me as a life prolonging treatment. Thankfully, I am getting it on a clinical trial or I could never have afforded it. I was also accepted into a second clinical trial for a topical cream to deal with the neuropathy in my feet, but it still has not abated.
Throughout this experience I used the phrase “It’s all good” as my reply when asked how I was doing. It is all good, I am almost done with treatment, only two more months to go and then they will do another scan and port removal. I am hopeful of total remission and then can move on and lead a normal life again. Because I am considered to be “high risk”, I will be checked every three months for five years, with continued checks up to ten years. The good thing about it is that many of my friends have recently been checked out with their doctors. I was told that I would never have made it to see age 50 at the rate my tumor was growing. I would love to see colonoscopies be performed routinely sooner than the mandatory age of 50!!
I am now involved with the Colon Cancer Coalition and the American Cancer Society, helping to spread the word about colon cancer. I have been asked to speak on a cancer panel to a group of nursing students on how to deal with cancer patients. I was also asked to speak at several events and am willing to share my story with anybody who will listen!!! I am also on the planning committee for the relay event in my city. I say, let’s get the word out there and raise some money for cancer awareness and much-needed research.
It is all good!!!
Click here to visit Becky’s blog.
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