When I found a large amount of blood on my toilet tissue just before Thanksgiving in 2010, I wasn’t too concerned. At just 45 years old, I was in excellent health, and other than the bloody stool I had no other symptoms signaling that something was seriously wrong. My primary care physician thought that I probably had internal hemorrhoids, a problem common in women who have had multiple pregnancies, he said, and recommended seeing a gastroenterologist if the bleeding continued longer than a week. Because of my age, having cancer was the last thought on anyone’s mind.
Urgency Overcomes Modesty
Although the bleeding had subsided during the month of December, by January it was back and I immediately saw a gastroenterologist. Although he never mentioned the possibility of cancer, because I had been adopted as an infant and didn’t know my biologic parents’ medical history, he recommended doing a colonoscopy.
The prospect of undergoing the procedure and exposing that part of my body made me uncomfortable. I’m a modest person and I didn’t want anyone examining my colon, but the urgency in his voice when he said, “I’d rather do this sooner than later,” made me realize that I had to put aside my apprehension and have the test.
When the procedure was over, the doctor said he had found a 4-cm tumor that he was certain was malignant. The news was shocking because all along I kept thinking my problem was just hemorrhoids. A biopsy confirmed his diagnosis. Fortunately, subsequent blood tests and a CT scan showed that the tumor had not spread to my liver or lungs.
There was more positive news following my surgery to remove the tumor. Because the cancer had not spread beyond two nearby lymph nodes, it was staged as IIIA disease and my oncologist was optimistic that my colon cancer was curable.
Although the surgery to remove the tumor was extensive—nearly a foot of my colon was removed—thankfully, I didn’t need to have a colostomy bag. And even though I had to face 12 cycles of the chemotherapy regimen FOLFOX (leucovorin, fluorouracil, oxaliplatin), the thought that I would come out the other side of having cancer likely cured kept me focused on getting well, despite encountering severe physical and emotional side effects that made me want to quit by round eight of my chemotherapy.
Having an oncologist who spent as much time with me as necessary to go over every detail of my progress and who encouraged me to get to the finish line of my treatment made me feel like I was his most important patient. That attitude kept me positive and driven to succeed.
Facing the Future
Throughout the past year, my goal was to handle my cancer diagnosis with dignity and grace because I thought if I do die, I want to leave my two teenage sons with a legacy of courage and determination. It was also important for me to educate my friends on the necessity of getting regular colonoscopy screenings—usually a conversation stopper—because the test had saved my life and I wanted them to know that it could save theirs, too.
A few months ago, I was told that I’m cancer-free. The news was both exciting and liberating. Everything I’ve been through since being diagnosed has been worth it because surviving colon cancer is enabling me to have many more years with my family. And I’m grateful for every day of my life. ■
Marsha Axler teaches computer technology in Voorhees, New Jersey.