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Colon CancerPatient Stories

My Metamorphosis Through Stage IV Colon Cancer

Crystal Ortner, PsyD, chronicles her difficult experiences with advanced-stage colon cancer and offers a heartfelt affirmation on the power of love.
December 2020 Vol 6 No 6
Crystal Ortner, PsyD
Plantation, Florida

“It’s a coin toss,” replied my gastroenterologist after my colonoscopy, when I asked whether the mass found in my colon was malignant. The words “it’s a coin toss” reverberated through my mind with the perfect amalgamation of disbelief and fear that anyone may feel when confronted with the “C word.” How is the weight of one person’s life left to the chance of a coin? And yet, is that not the risk we live every day, never knowing what awaits us, the chance of life or death, invisible enough that we continue in our daily delusions that we are safe and no harm can befall us?

Devastation

My delusion of safety and certainty was shattered with those 4 simple words. How can a 34-year-old mother of 2 beautiful daughters, a child psychologist, wife, healthy, active, organic-eating, crunchy-living woman like me have—dare I say it—the “C word”? What devastated me most were my daughters.

The thought of leaving my daughters motherless haunted me. My sweet 2- and 4-year-old girls, barely old enough to encode lasting memories of me if I were to die. The idea broke me, fractured my soul, and left me with an unwavering will to survive.

After emergency surgery, my only memory was the sound of my mother’s voice in my ear, saying, “It’s cancer.” But it was not just cancer; it was stage IV colon cancer. It had spread aggressively throughout my entire abdominal cavity, requiring chemotherapy, more surgery, and an ostomy bag to reroute intestinal output.

From Dissociation to Action

Looking back, I think I used a considerable amount of dissociation to manage through this part. I never believed that my “coin toss” chances had now dropped to about a 14% chance of survival. However, a conversation with a friend helped peel away my permeating fears.

My friend was a practitioner of Eastern medicine, and she told me that the road would be long and hard, but that I had all the tools necessary to heal the blockage within me. Her words generated a new level of motivation in me, by reminding me that the mind and the body are interconnected. I was no longer a dissociative victim; I was an active participant in this treatment process.

As a psychologist, I was familiar with the mind and body connection, which allowed me a sense of control over my illness. This was my body, my temple, and if I had been susceptible to sickness, then I could make myself susceptible to wellness. So, in addition to aggressive chemotherapy, I engaged in daily meditations, imagery, and mantras to manifest wellness.

9 Months Later

Chemotherapy had ravaged my mind and body in a way I had never imagined possible. Chemo is like death coursing through your veins, killing everything in its path. It took my hair, my energy, caused unrelenting nausea, and 20 pounds of weight loss. It took my ability to eat, time away from my children, and left me lifeless in bed, cared for by others. I no longer recognized myself. Surviving cancer was no longer my concern; instead, it was whether I could survive the treatment.

I know with certainty I could not have survived had it not been for my husband and family. They all picked up the pieces as I slipped away into sickness. My heart lay broken for my children and the deteriorating mother they saw before their eyes.

In addition to chemotherapy, I did acupuncture, juicing, massage, meditation, and imagery to will away the cancer. I visualized the disease within me slowly fading away, as light filled every space. Despite feeling plenty of fear, sadness, and anger, I tried my hardest to fill my body with peace, love, forgiveness, and conviction that I would survive. The chemo was just one piece of my treatment; the rest was diet, mind, body, and soul. I wanted to heal in every way possible.

More Surgery and Chemo

The next step was more surgery: the colon resection and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (or HIPEC). I had 13 biopsies that were done to evaluate my future situation. Miraculously, all these biopsies were negative for cancer. My surgeon said she had never seen such an outcome. I had been healed.

At that moment, I felt deeply connected to the anonymous saying from Eastern literature: “She remembered who she was, and the game changed.”

But first it was recommended that I have 6 additional chemo treatments to reduce the chance of recurrence. Despite feeling that another drop of chemo would likely kill me, I agreed to do all that I needed.

Survival is not always a choice. As a mother, I had an obligation. After the second chemo dose, however, I was not doing well. I struggled to breathe, feeling as if my airway was closing. The following night, I had excruciating stomach pains that led me to the emergency department. My bowel had perforated, leading to sepsis, septic shock, and emergency surgery.

What followed was the most traumatic yet. Just when I thought I had suffered enough, I had faced my next brush with death. I woke up in the ICU on a ventilator, with tubes pouring from my body, and I spent days there unable to talk, eat, drink, or breathe on my own. Overall, I spent about 2 months in the hospital alone, because of COVID-19 restrictions, recovering from one complication after another.

The list of procedures and treatments I received is long, including many chest and abdominal tubes, peripherally inserted central catheter (or PICC) lines used for intravenous nutrition because of the severe weight loss, fluid in my lungs, scan after scan, and more.

An Obligation to Keep Moving

All this led to a deep depression. The worst of it was the pain. I had never felt pain like this. It was so excruciating, that in that moment, I would have welcomed death. How I managed to live through this I’m not quite sure. I think I just had no choice. I needed to survive. I had an obligation: my children.

Even as I write this 8 months later, I am still not fully recovered. My hair is sparse but is starting to grow; my body is frail and thin, but it is slowly gaining weight; my strength is minimal but is slowly struggling to return.

I still require some assistance and help to care for my children, but each day gets easier.

Thankfully, after more clear scans and blood test results, my life-saving ostomy was reversed, a welcomed recovery I am still tackling. At least now I can once again see the light. With the knowledge that I can heal again, I emerged from the darkness. Changed.

I am incredibly grateful, and yet crippled by the anxiety of each appointment, each scan, each blood test that is plaguing my life, with the possibility of death nagging at the corners of my mind. The fight is over, and yet it never will be.

Surviving such darkness must mean I have something left to offer this world. Without connection, without love, I would not have survived.

My connection to my children, my husband, my family, amazing doctors, and to the power within myself helped save me.

The Next Version of Myself

There is power within us all, and the knowledge that healing can be found. My purpose is not yet done. Some days are better than others.

I feel like a broken musical snow globe that has been glued back together. The globe still works, the music plays and the snow falls. Except for the cracks. You cannot fully hide them, wounds fully present as tears trickle through what was once whole.

I grieve the life I used to know as I evolve into a new part of myself. I am broken, and yet I am also whole. However, it is through the cracks of my brokenness, the light can shine through.

As said by Eastern lore attributed to the Spirit Daughter: “And after the storm cleared, she met the next version of herself.”

I wish to take this opportunity to thank my amazing husband, loving family, friends, and incredible team of doctors and nurses at Cleveland Clinic Hospital. My heart will forever be grateful to all those who came to my rescue.

Now it is my turn to be an advocate and to let you know that you are never too young to have colon cancer; to work to spread awareness; and help to prevent others from ever experiencing the horrors I did. Colon cancer is the one cancer that is entirely preventable with proper screenings. Have you had your colonoscopy?

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