Honor Your Loved Ones

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Rachel Yingling

I was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer in March 2011, at age 26. Since then, the question everyone (friends, family, coworkers, survivors, nurses, doctors, taxi drivers, strangers!) wants answered is, “How did you find out?”

People my age who are in good general health do not have regular colonoscopies that might discover something like a colon tumor. And we don’t go to the doctor too frequently, instead tending to ignore symptoms unless they become acute – after all, by the time we’re able to schedule an appointment, we’ll probably be feeling better anyway. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from this journey is that feeling unwell – no matter what your symptoms are – is not normal, and should not be ignored. I had been experiencing persistent abdominal pain since that January; by the time I went to the ER on Monday, March 7, my pain was so severe that I could barely move. It had been days since I’d eaten or been able to sleep for more than about an hour at a time.

I had finally seen a GI doctor the previous Wednesday. He ordered blood work to check organ function and to test for things like celiac, prescribed an acid blocker, and scheduled me for an upper GI that Friday. But the endoscopy and labs were completely normal. If things didn’t improve in a few days, he said, I’d need to see him again, and possibly schedule a CT scan.

My memory of the rest of Friday and that weekend, spent in excruciating pain, is a blur. On Sunday I finally called the hospital and asked to speak with the GI fellow on-call. I had never been to an emergency room before and wanted to know the protocol. What should I do? How do I know I’m sick enough to warrant an ER visit? She had no answers for me. Frustrated, I decided to make another appointment with the doctor first thing in the morning. It took a few hours to get in touch with him, but he finally called at noon with clear instructions: Go to the ER for a CT scan.

After several hours of waiting, I was told they’d found a large bowel obstruction in the scan, that I would need at least a colonoscopy and possibly surgery, and that I was going to be admitted to the hospital. At that point, I was so grateful to have some sort of answer to my days/weeks/months of problems that I was much more relieved than scared. An obstruction – that sounded benign enough.

This “obstruction” became a tumor the next day. After the colonoscopy, one of the doctors told me that based on the type of tissue composing the obstruction (she called it “bloody” tissue), all signs pointed to cancer. Laparoscopic surgery was scheduled for that Friday to remove the portion of my colon containing the tumor, but I needed to be prepared for the almost certain diagnosis.

The tumor pathology report came back on March 16. The tumor was malignant; six lymph nodes were also infected. I was now officially a survivor.

I was released from the hospital the next day, and made my first visit to the Lombardi Cancer Center to meet my oncologist a few days later. She prescribed six months of FOLFOX chemotherapy, which I began on May 5, after having my eggs retrieved and frozen through a local fertility clinic (just in case!).

It is now late September, and I am two-thirds of the way through chemo. I have been very fortunate in that my body has responded well to the FOLFOX; although I’ve taken Zofran a few times to head off nausea, and at times I feel more tired than usual, I have not felt the sickness or exhaustion that are such common results of this aggressive treatment. Still, I’m eager to put this stage of my treatment behind me, ready to take back control of my schedule instead of having it be dictated by my illness.

I know that this is just the beginning for me; I have many scans and colonoscopies in my future. But I am a SURVIVOR. I have HOPE. And I am ready to LIVE.

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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