“This is never the news we want to give someone but it is cancer“, said the surgeon as he held my hand. I was still coming out of anesthesia but trust me, I heard loud and clear what he just said.
I asked him if I was going to die.
He said no (or some rehearsed doctor version of it).
I said good because I had two babies at home and couldn’t.
That’s how I found out I had stage 3 rectal cancer. The highest stage 3 there is, stage IIIC. Literally a touch under stage 4. It has already spread to my uterus and lymph nodes in that area. The biggest blessing so far seems to be that it hasn’t metastasized to my liver or lungs (although I’d like to be scanned from my head to the tips of my toes to make sure it’s not anywhere else, but everyone keeps telling me that’s not necessary).
If you are surprised, welcome to the club. I have spent the last month in every doctors office with my eyes glazed over in tears as they try to explain to me my diagnosis and what the hard year ahead will look like for me. Assuming the cancer responds to the treatment regime they have given me, I will undergo two months of IV chemotherapy, followed by a chemo pill and radiation for six weeks, a major surgery where they remove my tumor along with a complete hysterectomy, rebuild part of my organs down there and then more chemotherapy after that. So basically, Happy New Year! Your year has gone to shit before it’s even begun!
Diagnosis & Symptoms
If you’re wondering how this all even started, let me explain. I will attempt to make this short since I’m not really into rehashing every symptom and medical history. The most important thing to note is that this cancer really grew and spread the entire time I was pregnant and postpartum so it was the perfect storm of thinking the symptoms were pregnancy and postpartum related.
Right after finding out I was pregnant with our second baby, I had an OB appointment in December 2017. The pap smear and all tests came back normal. So while I likely did have this cancer then, it had not yet spread to any other organs or it would’ve shown up on the test results. Bloodwork also showed I was very anemic (another red flag for this cancer); HOWEVER, I also don’t eat meat, so when I told the doctor that I was put on iron pills and that was that. The rest of my pregnancy was normal and uneventful. I never had any sickness or side effects. I was tired sure, but I was also chasing around a 2-year-old. I had three ultrasounds done during the pregnancy but none of them showed the cancer on my uterus (I guess because by that point all my baby parts were bigger and in the way of seeing it on the uterus I’m told?). Honestly, it was a huge blessing I had no idea this was happening while I was pregnant. I would not have been able to receive treatment until after delivery and it would’ve just made my whole pregnancy much more stressful. Another thing to note, I do not have a family history of colon or rectal cancer. My mother and sister have had polyps removed, but nothing to set off the alarm that the rest of the immediate family should be getting colonoscopies any earlier than what’s normally suggested.
Delivery was completely normal with no complications. I was discharged and went home to begin the oh-so-fun fourth trimester of pregnancy. I had noticed I was constipated with some occasional bright red blood, but
I had hemorrhoids with my first child and chalked that up to the same with this one. The symptoms were nothing alarming to make me think it was anything than regular postpartum issues.
I had noticed there seemed to be some foods that did not agree with my stomach. I began keeping a small food diary with a list of foods that upset my stomach after eating. My general thinking was ‘oh, I am getting older and some foods just do not agree with me“. Again, I thought perhaps this was IBS or maybe just food sensitivity I had began to develop.
I was also losing weight. But breastfeeding was going so well, it was just…easy. It was working…much like it had NOT with my first child. So when I kept remarking to my husband I was losing weight without trying, I figured this must be the breastfeeding weight that just ‘falls off’. I honestly felt pretty good. At six weeks I started intermittently working out again (spin class which I did all throughout pregnancy and jogging here and there). Five days before I received my cancer diagnosis I ran 3.5 miles with my husband and felt G-R-E-A-T. Isn’t that crazy?
December 17, 2018 I flew back home to Louisiana to celebrate the holidays with my family. My husband was to come meet us in a week. The next few days I really began to feel what I assumed was my hemorrhoids flare up. The morning of December 20th I was in so much pain I told my mom (much to her complete shock) that something must be wrong and I was going to go into the ER.
The ER visit was all a blur. Basically in a nut shell, I had developed an abscess around the tumor which is what was causing the immense pain. I was administered IV antibiotics, had a CT and MRI scan and admitted overnight so they could do a colonoscopy that night to see what was going on. Sixteen hours after being admitted, the doctor was delivering me the bad news.
Honestly the whole experience has felt very out-of-body. To go from thinking you are pretty dang healthy, working out regularly, eating (mostly) vegetarian and healthy and then to hear you have cancer that has already spread significantly is mind-blowing and terrifying.
We decided we wanted a second opinion and traveled to MD Anderson to get a treatment plan. There we met with an oncologist, radiation doctor, surgeon and fertility doctor. There was talk of perhaps freezing eggs since I would require a complete hysterectomy since the cancer had spread. The surgeon (they are never really known for the best bedside manner, are they??) said, “I’m not here to sugarcoat it. You’re not walking in here with stage 1, 2 or an average stage 3 cancer. You are the very top of stage 3. You need chemo in your blood like yesterday”. Well, ok then! That pretty much solidified my decision that we have been blessed with two healthy children and I didn’t want to wait weeks to go through the egg retrieval process. I wanted to start chemotherapy asap. We met with the fertility doctor next, who told me the same thing, she did not think we had time to wait on doing egg retrieval and with the location of the tumor (it has grown into some of my lady parts), she wasn’t even sure egg retrieval would be safe. Hearing her take on it made me feel better that we were doing the right thing. [I do have a ton of feelings on this fertility aspect of it but that’s for a whole other post. I am honestly still trying to process this part of it. I try not to think about it too much because at this point, it’s just the cards I’ve been dealt. I cannot change this. It is happening.]
As I write this, I have just completed my first round of chemotherapy. It was largely boring and uneventful, which they tell me is good. No one else in the infusion room tried to talk to me, probably because I was a crying anxious mess. I guess that behavior doesn’t scream ‘come talk to me’! Although there was an older lady in there who caught
my eye and mouthed ‘you can do this’ with a thumbs up. That was sweet. The medicines made me sleepy so I spent a large part of the four hours sleeping and reading some. Then it was over. Done. I’m home now. They did discharge me with a small chemo pump that will pump chemo drugs into me for 48-hours straight and I go back in two days to have the pump removed. I get a two-week break and then do it all over again. Four times total. Down to three times now. So that means I’m a quarter done, right? Trying to not look too far ahead at the daunting treatment still looming in the future. The first week in March we travel back to MD Anderson to complete more scans to see if the chemotherapy is working. The rest of the treatment will be determined by those results.
I’ll attempt to update this somewhat regularly as I know people are curious and praying. But I also don’t want this cancer to define me. I am more than this cancer. I guess this next year will be a test of navigating through it all to find hope, balance and peace. Ne me lâche pas.