Being diagnosed with cancer brings up a lot of emotions, especially at the initial diagnosis. Believe it or not, I missed the call from the doctor who called to give me the news of my diagnosis because I wasn’t expecting it. I was 33 and otherwise healthy.
I was home alone when I finally talked to the doctor, and I didn’t tell anyone the news for a while. It was July 2nd, and my family was getting ready for a big July 4th celebration at the cabin. I was in charge of making our float for the parade, so I had something to occupy my mind. I knew I had cancer, but I wouldn’t know how bad it was until I had surgery. So many questions kept popping up my mind: am I dreaming, why me, what if, how, now what? I work in the medical field, so I know about cancer, but it is interesting when you are personally faced with the disease — all my knowledge went out the door, and it was replaced by panic. I had a 5-year-old son. I wasn’t ready to die.
A few weeks later, I underwent a colon resection where 18 inches of my large intestine and about 20 lymph nodes were removed. Because the tumor hadn’t reached the wall of the colon, I was diagnosed at stage 1, which is not a common stage at diagnosis. It meant I was very fortunate. I didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation, just some recovery time from the surgery. Genetic testing was done on the tumor, and I also had a genomic blood profile done. Both were negative for any hereditary components that could’ve caused my colon cancer.
I decided to take the full 12 weeks FMLA available to me following my surgery. For some reason, I thought it would be a nice break. Turns out, there is a lot to deal with after having cancer. As the days went by, I had fewer and fewer visitors, phone calls, prepared meals, and just overall pampering. That is when the reality of the situation started settling in. It was only 3 weeks from the time I had first noticed blood in my stool to the time I had part of my colon removed. I never had time to process what was happening before things calmed down.
About 3 weeks post-surgery I was at home alone for the first time, and my mind was reeling. “I have cancer, or had cancer, did I survive cancer, why me, why did this happen, what if I hadn’t noticed the blood in my stool, what if I hadn’t mentioned it to my doctor, what if she hadn’t ordered a colonoscopy?” I cried for the first time since my diagnosis. The most overwhelming thought was “now what?” I spent several weeks feeling very depressed. I should have been thankful I was alive, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of sadness. I knew several people who had passed from cancer, but they were all “old.” How does someone get colon cancer at 33? I didn’t have any family history, and all of my genetic testing results were normal — meaning there wasn’t anything in my genes that could’ve caused it. I was told by my oncologist that “it just happens.” Being a Scientist, I had a really hard time accepting that as an answer.
Though I hadn't realized what it was, I knew there had to be a reason this happened to me. I didn’t know anyone else with colon cancer, especially someone under 50. I felt so alone. Then I decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself and time to start doing something. I had a 5-year-old son, and I wanted to do everything in my power to prevent this from happening to him. I signed up to attend a conference for colon cancer patients and caregivers in Phoenix AZ. At the time I had no idea that attending this conference would change my life.