I was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 43. I had no symptoms, really. I had indigestion for a couple of months while taking medicine, and it hadn’t gotten any better, so I mentioned it to my nurse practitioner. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 41, and I sometimes take medications that can cause stomach upset.
Colon Cancer Screening Saved My Life
The nurse practitioner told me to see a gastroenterologist to find out if I should have an endoscopy to rule out an ulcer, because these medications can cause ulcers. I saw a gastroenterologist, and I mentioned to her that I had an aunt who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 42. I told the gastroenterologist that I had been advised I didn’t need to start screening for colon cancer until age 50. She disagreed, and in doing so, saved my life.
I had an endoscopy and a colonoscopy, which showed a polyp that she thought looked “okay,” so I waited for the report unconcerned. I had my annual mammogram, bought a new car, planned a Disney cruise and a trip to Walt Disney World, had a presentation at an upcoming conference, and continued to work.
Seven days later, my gastroenterologist’s nurse called and told me that my doctor wanted to speak to me. My gastroenterologist told me that it wasn’t what we expected; it was cancer.
I have been an oncology nurse for decades and an oncology nurse navigator for the last 14 years. My first response was to tell my gastroenterologist which surgeon and oncologist I wanted to see, and my next step was to call and schedule these appointments myself.
I underwent a laparoscopic colectomy and was home 36 hours later. My oncologist recommended I have genetic testing, which revealed a genetic variant of unknown significance. I also had a multigene assay, called Oncotype DX, which looks at genes in the cancer, and whether chemotherapy may have benefit in my treatment. My oncologist recommended that I receive chemotherapy, so I had a port placed and 6 months of chemotherapy.
Cancer Changed Me
Having cancer changed me. I don’t look at life the same way. The thought of cancer, and the possibility that it would return are always on my mind. I don’t, however, live in fear or dread. One of the things that helped me was to have a celebration list of things to look forward to during chemo, such as knowing what day my cold sensitivity because of chemo would go away, planning to have an icy drink or milkshake, and for life after chemo.
I listened to a musical artist I love often during my chemo treatments. She was coming to give a concert in my town, and we planned to go. It was supposed to be several weeks after my chemo, so I would have plenty of time to recover, but because of treatment delays, it was only a couple of days after I finished. I just walked a little slower to my seat.
Chemo slowed me down a bit, because of fatigue, but it didn’t stop me. Instead, I chose and continue to choose to live life every day, to savor and cherish it. I had to take a 3-week leave when I had my surgery, but I ended up going back to work early. Working with heroes like cancer survivors every day is an amazing way to spend my life, and I couldn’t wait to get back.
My Dad, My Hero
My first hero was my dad. My dad was an example for me all my life. His dedication to his family, his work, his faith, and his farm were and are always an inspiration to me. Then he was diagnosed with advanced cancer and became a survivor hero to me, in a whole new way. His example in life and then in dealing with his cancer diagnosis influenced how I dealt with my own cancer diagnosis. Even now, thinking of his smile and the memory of his amazing laughter, brings a smile to my face.
When I was little, I wanted to catch dragonflies and hold them in my hand. When I was diagnosed with cancer and going through treatment, I was given several dragonflies in different forms, including some dragonfly stickers. I decorated my chemo pump with these stickers at each of my treatments. I keep a glass dragonfly given to me on my desk every day. My daughter is an artist, so she designed a tattoo that includes the word hope and a dragonfly, which I had inked for the 5th anniversary of my diagnosis. These remind me of my dad, of love, of hope, and of promise.
My dad would always tell me that there are beautiful things that we can only care for, but not hold on to. I choose to be thankful for blessings, count my gifts, and choose joy. I choose to breathe in life and remember the gift of the dragonflies.