For more than half of my life, I’ve been surviving colon cancer.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer. I had just turned 17.
I’d spotted blood in the stool (for many years) and one unfortunate day, a tumor was staring my GI back in the face as his scope detected the cause of my issues. My days of high school theater, algebra and hanging out with my boyfriend suddenly changed.
I entered a world full of colon talk, cancer hospitals and itchy, scratchy (and dare I say ugly) hospital gowns.
Surgery and Treatment for Colon Cancer
I first underwent colon resection surgery and then began a FOLFIRI chemo cocktail after a second opinion with doctors at M.D. Anderson confirmed my Kansas City doctors’ plans.
Before starting radiation, I underwent another surgery that suspended my ovaries into my abdomen to save my natural hormone function (although making me infertile).
Yet in the midst of this, my main concerns continued to be those of a “normal” teenager – friends and prom. I did make it to the dance.
For about seven months, I was in the swirl of full-on cancer treatment as an amazing team of doctors and nurses worked to save my life.
My cancer treatment ended just in time for me to return to my senior year of high school.
Surviving Colon Cancer And Moving On
I graduated high school on time (and cancer-free), and went on to attend the University of Central Missouri, where I re-learned the balance of living a “normal” teenage life and surviving colon cancer.
I studied public relations with the hope of working for a cancer nonprofit one day.
Receiving a college scholarship just for cancer survivors, I began to encounter small joys that come from surviving cancer. Although my awareness of where the bathrooms were located always seemed to be heightened compared to my friends, I learned how to cope with a “new normal.”
I wore an invisible badge of “survivor” pinned to my chest most of the time, but that wasn’t the only new role I took on.
I married my high school sweetheart (and caregiver) Mike and happily became a wife.
For eight years, I lived as a happy “semicolon,” or that’s what I called myself. Although surviving colon cancer was part of my life story, it had become a past memory – a random and rare experience of my teenage years.
But then one day, I ran across The Colon Club.
Joining The Colon Club
One day in 2007, I hopped online and started googling information for colon cancer survivors. While cancer survival statistics were not top-of-mind, something inside of me kept whispering, “Think about survivorship…”
My eyes grew wide when I clicked on the top search result – The Colon Club. Once the homepage loaded, I couldn’t believe it.
A picture of a girl named Erika loaded. She appeared to be my age and she had a similar scar… a long, vertical line that ran the length of her abdomen. She was a stage IV colon cancer survivor.
I’d never met someone else surviving colon cancer, much less someone in their 20s and 30s!
I scrolled through the website and found a project called “The Colondar” – a calendar of men and women diagnosed with colorectal cancer under age 50. I signed up to be notified when applications were being accepted. Once I got the notification email, I applied.
Many months later, a girl named Molly called me at work and invited me to be in the upcoming calendar.
So in Summer of 2008, I flew to upstate New York for a photo shoot to pose as Miss October 2009.
The experience changed my life.
Diagnosed With Colon Cancer A Second Time
In Dec. 2008, my GI discovered a polyp during a routine colonoscopy that made the hairs on his arms stand up. I got scoped every three years; we all assumed this routine worked for me and would prevent any future disease.
But the concerning polyp brought doubt and although a biopsy ruled it “non-cancerous,” he wasn’t convinced.
Based on my personal history of colon cancer, he recommend I undergo another surgery, a subtotal colectomy, to remove as much of my large intestine, and therefore my risk of colon cancer, as possible.
I took his advice and had the surgery, assuming it was preventive. But once I woke up, I learned it was actually life saving. Pathology came back and indicated the initial biopsy was wrong – it was stage I disease. I was surviving colon cancer… again… now at age 25.
Coping With Surviving Colon Cancer
The recovery after my second colon cancer was difficult physically, but it was even harder to cope emotionally and spiritually. Surviving cancer once was hard enough, but facing it a second time brought new fear and anxiety. It made me doubt and question God. It put a strain on my marriage. I resented my body for turning against me.
I thought I’d been healed.
To cope, I leaned into my community of survivors who, fortunately, I’d met just a year prior.
I started seeing a counselor who helped me work through the trauma.
I also began a blog, Semicolon Stories. The blog helped me capture, understand and tell my story. When I saw it help others, it became an added benefit.
This is how I became a blogger.
Adopting After Cancer
I struggled after my second diagnosis, not only with the cancer itself, but with infertility and closed doors. Although we knew adoption would be our path to parenthood, we looked into international adoption before my second diagnosis.
A new cancer didn’t only set back our timeline to start a family, but it closed a few doors. I learned many countries don’t allow cancer survivors to adopt from them, and several agencies want survivors to be at least 5 years “cancer-free” before they’ll work with them.
I was sad and angry.
But after a season of healing, we decided to not give up. We found a domestic adoption agency willing to work with us after being one year cancer-free, and my oncologist wrote a note declaring I was a “healthy, suitable mother.”
Our adoption process began in September 2010. We dove in and began our home study during the fall. Days before our agency was to list our online profile for birth moms to consider us, local friends called us (randomly) about a 4-month old baby girl who, three weeks later, would become our daughter.
Diagnosed with Lynch Syndrome
Once the shock of a second cancer passed, our adoption craze settled down, and life got to a “new normal,” doctors began talking to me about a genetic condition they suspected caused my cancers — Lynch syndrome.
Genetic testing in 2001 and again in 2009 indicated a genetic abnormality, but the research was primitive and details unclear. Because of my young age and two occurrences of colorectal cancer, doctors decided to treat me as a Lynch syndrome patient. This involved a total hysterectomy in 2012, yearly colonoscopies and many other tests to prevent another cancer occurrence.
In 2013, I received a letter in the mail and follow-up calls from the geneticists who’d followed me – the laboratory reclassified my genetic mutation and it was confirmed I do carry the MLH1 gene variant of Lynch syndrome.
But, after more tests for my family, more curve balls came our way:
Neither my mom nor dad tested positive for the gene variant.
Although I have an inherited genetic disease, I didn’t actually inherit it.
How I’m Now Handling Surviving Colon Cancer
Through over a decade of fighting colorectal cancer, I’ve experienced many levels and layers to this disease. I’ve ignored it, downplayed it, shared it, been empowered by it and lived in fear of it.
I’ve hit just about every physical, emotional, mental and spiritual issue that can come with cancer … and particularly as a young adult.
But through it all, my faith in God’s grown strong.
Support from friends and family helps me stand up (literally) when I feel weak. Many amazing opportunities to share my story continue to open up. Each time I share, I heal a little bit more.
From that strength, I find a desire to help others.
In fall 2012, I met the team at Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC). They were planning a new awareness campaign, One Million Strong. I volunteered to be in a photo shoot and soon offered my writing skills for the campaign. Not long after its launch, Fight CRC approached me about becoming their first Director of Communication and establishing a communications team.
I served in this role for five years and raised national awareness of the disease. (I continue to stay involved as a freelance writer/strategist and advocate.) My 17-year-old self wouldn’t have believed how my cancer story has unfolded. I am grateful for every opportunity to advance the cause.
I am thriving, healthy and surviving colorectal cancer. I believe there’s a reason I’m still here. Each day is an adventure, I don’t know what it holds. But I do find peace and rest in a few promises:
When you’re suffering, you’re not ALONE.
GOD is no stranger to pain.
FAITH is a guide for life.
There’s always HOPE – even in the most traumatic events.
Look for the LIGHT, even when it seems dim. Trust me… it’s there.