Body & Mind

In Her Own Words – Fighting Colorectal Cancer

BY: Ginny Harris

“We found a tumor during your colonoscopy. It’s cancer until proven otherwise.” The doctor continued speaking but the words “tumor” and “cancer” were echoing in my brain and I couldn’t focus on anything else.  I was 42 years old, and even though I had been very sick for the past few months, cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. “We found a tumor during your colonoscopy. It’s cancer until proven otherwise.” The doctor continued speaking but the words “tumor” and “cancer” were echoing in my brain and I couldn’t focus on anything else.  I was 42 years old, and even though I had been very sick for the past few months, cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. 

I stared blankly at the doctor as he finished speaking, and for the briefest of moments it occurred to me that this very same doctor just a couple of months prior had told me to eat more yogurt and practice yoga and meditation to reduce stress. He certainly did not believe that I had cancer 2 months ago, but now he looked rather stricken. I didn’t point out any of this. 

The biopsy results came back quickly: Adenocarcinoma, the most common type of colon and rectal cancer. I soon learned my staging (“at least” stage 3) and my treatment plan (chemo-radiation, chemotherapy, then surgery). Treatment was awful and I often wondered how I’d survive. I was hospitalized for intractable diarrhea for five days during chemo-radiation, as the chemo pills were just too much for my system. I was terrified about getting a port in my chest. After my first chemotherapy session, I asked my husband to pull the car over four times during our drive home so I could throw up out the door, before we knew about the little blue plastic vomit bags. I ended up in the emergency room after having a cardiac reaction to chemotherapy that prevented me from sleeping for days on end. A friend recommended I go to a well-respected surgeon she knew for a second opinion; he stoically told me how grim my prognosis was, and how I should be preparing to be dead within the next few years. I could go into gruesome detail about how not fun it is to have an ileostomy. 

While the suffering may be an important aspect to highlight of any preventable cancer story, the story of what I was experiencing in the weeks and months leading up to the day I received my diagnosis might be the more important part. What if someone out there sees similarities to what they are going through in their own lives? What if they know someone going through the same thing? 

I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer on March 21, 2022. The previous September I got a flu-like cold. Just as I started to feel a little bit better, I got another one. This pattern continued throughout the holidays and into the New Year. At one point I developed such a severe cough that I could barely breathe, and I would sit on the tile floor of the shower taking steam showers, too weak to stand. Throughout this time I was in and out of urgent care clinics, getting scripts for antibiotics and steroids and pushing through, believing “it would pass” as every illness always had previously. And soon, the flu-like viruses did pass, but they were replaced with crippling abdominal pain. 

I felt sick to my stomach all the time and was having diarrhea more often than not. I’d vomit occasionally. I started eliminating things from my diet. Coffee, then fresh vegetables, then fruit. Little by little, I was cutting out foods thinking maybe I had developed a sensitivity. Eventually my diet became plain baked potatoes, plain baked chicken, crackers, and Lipton noodle soup. I had lost 30 lbs. The abdominal pain began to become focused underneath my right rib cage. Google and I were convinced it was my gallbladder.

My new primary care doctor sent me for an ultrasound of my gallbladder, which came back looking healthy and perfect. I cried. Another ultrasound revealed hepatic cysts on my liver. I was referred to a liver specialist who calmly told me those cysts had probably been there since birth and were also not the cause of my pain and suffering. Cue more tears. 

I then saw a gastrointestinal specialist. He tested me for parasites. As crazy as it sounds, by that time I was almost hoping for a parasite because I was so desperate for an answer. The results were negative. I was now down 35 lbs. He told me he suspected I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Irritable Bowel Disease and, “Let’s do an Endoscopy and Colonoscopy and we’ll take it from there.” I told myself one of these tests has to provide a concrete diagnosis, because I cannot go on like this. 

When I called to schedule my endoscopy and colonoscopy, they told me the first available appointment was in mid-May, 3 months away. I was in total and utter disbelief. I remember blubbering to the very-nice-but-unable-to-help-me customer service agent, “I cannot wait that long. I am in too much pain. I think this is what dying might feel like? Or am I just being dramatic?” She nervously replied, “You can call us every day to see if there’s been a cancellation.”  So I did, despite having very little fight left in me, despite having no energy due to lack of caloric intake, diarrhea, and dehydration. After a few weeks, I was able to move my appointment up from mid-May to March 21st. 

I’ve been completely done with treatment for a little over a year. The side effects are numerous and life-altering. I have Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy in both my hands and feet, which greatly impacts my quality of life. My digestion system post-surgery will never be “normal” again. I have all of the health complications of medical menopause. My thyroid stopped working during treatment. I have severe fatigue that began during treatment and never stopped. I also have cognitive issues such as trouble finding words, difficulty putting thoughts together during a conversation, and memory recall problems. Normal activities wear me out and I need lots of naps. But! I’m still here and currently in remission. 

I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. Colorectal cancer is highly preventable. At one point in time, my tumor was a polyp that could have been removed. Over several years, I was telling more than one doctor about blood in my stool and was being brushed off and told it was likely “just a hemorrhoid.” 

Advocate for yourself and your health! You know your body better than anyone else. If something seems off, keep pressing your doctors to investigate until you have answers. And keep in mind that colorectal cancer is affecting young people more and more these days. My oncologist advised me that my tumor had likely been growing for approximately 7 years, making me only 35 years old when it could have been discovered and removed, setting my life on a completely different path. You are not too young to be screened for colorectal cancer, although you may have to convince your doctor of this. 

I’d like to thank my surgeon, Dr. Charles Staley and his team at Emory Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta, Georgia. Your skill and wisdom quite literally saved my life. And to the friends and family who stuck by me through it all, visited me in the hospital, and sent endless cards and gifts and texts, you will always have my heart and soul’s deepest gratitude. You saved me in every other way a person can be saved, and there’s no way I’d have the mental fortitude and emotional strength to be telling this story today without you. 

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