Surviving Colon Cancer
My 71 year-old mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. Having had a colonoscopy only 4 years ago, it was surprising the way she discovered it. Waiting for a diagnosis and staging of her cancer was hard. It would be about 3 weeks to get the details of her situation. 3 weeks is a long time to find out whether you will live or die in the near future.
Colon Cancer Facts
Until recently, I was clueless about colon cancer. Honestly, I didn't even know what a colon was. Then this horrible thing called colon (colorectal) cancer came into my life through my mother's diagnosis. This serious illness could have taken my mother from me - I could have lost her. Her story is below, but before reading, these are the important facts that I have come to know and want to share:
- Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women. It is also the third leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.
- Colorectal cancer diagnosis and death rates are the highest in African American men and women.
- There are no symptoms in the early stages of colorectal cancer. This is why screening can mean the difference between life and death.
- When colorectal cancer is found early, it is most likely to be curable. It can also prevent colon cancer from beginning since polyps which can become cancerous, can be removed before this happens.
- One in twenty Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer or rectum cancer in their lifetime.
- People with a parent, sibling, or child who has had colorectal cancer, have 2-3 times the chance of developing colorectal cancer compared to individuals with no family history.
These facts are from the American Cancer Society website.
My Mother's Story
History: My mother had been feeling sick for a couple of months. She went to the doctor more than a few times but nothing was ever found. At the age of 71, she has various health problems that cause her to take different medications that can cause symptoms of not feeling well. For instance, she has osteoporosis and COPD. She also has a degenerative disc in her spine that causes her pain and a benign tumor in her neck area that is small and is monitored for changes. She has taken medications for these conditions and uses an inhaler too; she was an avid smoker in her youth but quit several years ago. She is not overweight and lives a very healthy lifestyle, walking regularly and eating healthy.
Events Leading to Diagnosis: Two days before she was diagnosed with colon cancer, my mother went to the doctor stating that she felt poorly. The doctor asked her to get a stool sample and bring it in to her next appointment 5 days later. Two days before her appointment, she woke up feeling disoriented and terrible. She told my stepfather that something was very wrong and that she needed to go to the hospital.
There she would learn that her bloodcount was an 8 and that she had blood in her stool. She was admitted immediately. She was given a blood transfusion and scheduled for a colonscopy and endoscomy. The colonoscopy revealed that she had two polyps and a 2-inch tumor that was bleeding. A couple of days later, tests confirmed what the doctor had suggested; her tumor was cancerous. She was scheduled for surgery two days later to have the polyps and tumor removed after one more blood transfusion. Surgery would tell what stage she was experiencing and what treatment would follow.
Surgery: The surgery took 5 hours, 2 hours longer than expected. The surgeon said that up to 3 feet of her colon was removed along with the polyps and lymph nodes. He said the length of the colon removed was less than half of her entire colon. The extra time was due to her colon being tangled in scar tissue from a previous gall bladder surgery. He said that the cancer had not spread to surrounding organs or tissue outside of the colon. They would not know if the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes until further tests were performed. Only then would they be able to tell us what stage she was in and if chemotherapy would be prescribed.
Colon Cancer Screening
Have you ever had a colonoscopy?
Colon Cancer Screening
While my mother's colonoscopy 4 years ago did not help her, colonoscopies can detect colon cancer quickly and precancerous polyps can be removed early on. According to the Colon Cancer Alliance, "Polyps are growths on the inner wall of the colon or rectum. They are common in people over age 50. Most polyps are benign (not cancer), but some polyps (adenomas) can become cancer. Finding and removing polyps may reduce the risk of colon cancer."
"Screening is the number one way you can reduce your risk of colon cancer. Despite its high incidence, colon cancer is unique in that it is one of the most preventable and, if found early, most treatable forms of cancer. And the best part is, screening is easy! From colonoscopy to at-home stool tests, there's an option for everyone. If you're over 50, high risk or symptomatic, don't put it off. Talk to your doctor about getting checked!"
After a major surgery, it is important for a patient to have an advocate by their side and someone who can act when needed. It can mean the difference between life and death.
Find numerous ways to improve your colon health here.
I wasn't prepared for what would happen after surgery. I stayed with my mother during surgery and for the two days following. My sister and my stepfather would take turns staying with her at the hospital the next several days. One of us would always be in the room with her, with the exception of a lunch break, and one of us would stay each night.
The first day and night after surgery were rough. My mother was in a lot of pain and I think the not knowing part made everything 100 times worse. The tube that had been down her throat and the medicines she had been given caused her throat to be excessively dry, giving her a continuous feeling and fear of choking. She could not drink but her mouth and lips could be swabbed with a small damp sponge, giving temporary relief. I stayed by her side for several hours to provide this small relief for her; she was very grateful. She had back pain as well and could not get comfortable, making her feel helpless. She was able to administer her own pain medication by pressing a button as often as every 10 minutes. While this might sound great, she was unable to rest for more than 10 minutes at a time and experienced a resurgence of pain often.
The second evening after surgery my mother's heart rate suddenly spiked into the 150s. My mom described it with a look of alarm, "My heart is fluttering." I told the nurse on call right away. The doctor on staff was called immediately. After vebally verifying that my mother had no previous heart condition, she told us that my mother may be experiencing a reaction to major surgery, not uncommon in people her age.....or it could be a heart attack. She was given a drug through her IV to bring her heart rate down and an EKG and chest x-ray were done within minutes. The drug had an immediate impact, causing her heart rate to go back to 99-100 where it had been previously. She was also put on a 24-hour heart monitor. The doctor would visit us again after a few hours, telling us that the x-ray had found nothing unusual. She would continue to receive the drug they had given her in lower doses for several days after this.
The Final Diagnosis
While my mother had other minor complications and her post-surgery experience was tough, her final diagnosis was a massive relief to everyone. They found no cancer in her lymph-nodes and she would not need chemotherapy. She was considered to be in stage 1. This was the best prognosis we could have hoped for and we were all quite happily surprised. She will need to be monitored closely for recurring symptoms and receive future colonscopies often.