Honor Your Loved Ones

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Robin Braverman

In May, I will be celebrating a very remarkable milestone. It’s not my wedding anniversary, or hitting goal in Weight Watchers (although that would be nice!) or even quitting smoking (never have smoked), but something even more wonderful.

In May, I will celebrate five years in remission from Stage IV Colon Cancer (including a recurrence in the liver), and—with the exception of needing to lose about 20 pounds—am probably healthier than I’ve ever been. As the song quips: “What a long, strange trip it’s been,” and, while the war will be waged for the rest of my life, I can claim success in the latest battle.

My ordeal started in August of 2002. Less than one year earlier, the nation watched in horror as we were attacked, and many of us started thinking about our own mortality. We stocked our basements with fresh water, bought plastic sheeting to seal our windows, and came up with emergency plans for our families. Never had it crossed my mind that my enemy was on the inside.

Coming to terms with my possible demise at the age of 41 was not easy. My daughter had just turned six, and giving up was not an option. The statistics on survivability were abysmal, but I was determined to fight. I had surgery in mid August, followed by chemotherapy. Finding the right course of chemo itself was a huge endeavor; I had consulted four doctors in the Washington, D.C. and New York areas, and had received four different courses of treatment. With the assistance of my uncle, a doctor who was also a colon cancer patient, I was able to get an appointment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. There I underwent countless tests, but came away with a chemo protocol and the recommendation of a local doctor who would administer it.

 

My mother—my rock during that visit—and I had a most awful time in Houston. I got food poisoning, and then my purse was stolen from the hotel where we were staying. It was around the one-year anniversary of 9/11—try getting onto a plane with no identification! But while the trip was awful, I discovered how much a sense of humor was vital to recovery. My mom and I laughed more than we had in years.

Armed with a protocol and the name of a local doctor, I entered the scary world of chemotherapy. The night of the first infusion, I got on my knees before going to bed, and prayed that I would not get sick. I had already discussed with my daughter the fact that I would very likely lose my hair, and was totally prepared to do so. I had been wig shopping, and not liking anything there, had purchased a turban while in Houston. My daughter was looking forward to drawing with markers on my bald head, but I was most fearful of sickness and nausea.

I sailed through the first two weeks of chemo, but towards the end of my third week (my “off” week), I was plagued with awful stomach pain and endless diarrhea. I was admitted to the hospital, and spent a week hooked up to an IV, receiving morphine, and eating nothing but jello and chicken broth. Apparently, my prayers were not heeded.

I started back on chemo a week later, and once again, sailed through the first two weeks, and crashed at the end of my third week. Same problems, with even more diarrhea and, for good measure, vomiting. Another week in the hospital—been there, done that.

After that second hospital stay, I fired that oncologist. I hooked up with a new group, who, after reviewing my protocol, determined that it was being administered incorrectly. One of the drugs in the cocktail was being given twice every three weeks instead of only once; the protocol had been changed because people were dying from the toxicity! Once that was changed, I sailed through the rest of the chemotherapy course with very little problem (and no hair loss!).

While we had been at MD Anderson, my mother, uncle, and I sought a genetic counselor and mapped out our family profile. My maternal grandfather and maternal uncle both had colon cancer, but there was no direct link to me. With this information, it was suggested that I had a “familial” link (where it runs in families), but not a “genetic” (direct traceable path) one. Sadly, less than three months later, my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The picture became clearer, and the genetic cancer label now became appropriate.

Because of the genetic link, I was given the recommendation to have a complete hysterectomy. The mutation carried remarkably increased chances of developing endometrial and ovarian cancers, so I had that surgery in December of 2003. While that recovery was not pleasant, I was enjoying a period of remission.

Unfortunately, that was short-lived, as a recurrence was diagnosed in June of 2004. I returned to chemo for another six months, but that was not effective in shrinking the tumor in my liver. On December 14, 2004—a little over two weeks after burying my mother—I underwent another surgery to remove the tumor. That recovery was the worst by far. I developed a serious infection after being released from the hospital. I then got to follow that up with another six months of chemotherapy.

The roller coaster of surgery/chemo/remission/chemo/surgery/chemo was beginning to wear thin. Based on the recommendation of friends, I wound up at the door of Dr. Paul Faust, a natural medicine doctor in Towson, Maryland. His thinking was to make my immune system so efficient that it would fight off any cancer cells on its own. I started taking supplements, and while I fought (and still resent) having to swallow 60–80 pills a day, I must say that the results speak for themselves—almost five years in remission!

When I was diagnosed with my cancer, the statistics showed that the five-year survivability rate of Stage IV Colon Cancer was 5%. I am thrilled to say that I am almost there! It has been a long journey, but one that can have a winning outcome. I also attribute my success to maintaining a sense of humor, keeping a positive attitude, and relying heavily on friends and family for reassurance (and the occasional sanity check).

Do I still worry about recurrence? You bet. But I know I won’t have to travel that road alone, and realize that it will only be a bump on the road—not a dead end.

Are you at Risk For Colorectal Cancer?

  • 2nd leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women combined
  • Colonoscopies not only discover cancer, but can also stop cancer
  • 50% of Americans still do not get colonoscopy reimbursement
  • Colon cancer research is still vastly under-funded

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