On a brisk and cool April 1st Sunday morning Team Beth Israel Cares participated on the 9th annual Colon Cancer Challenge walk held in Central Park, NY. The team raised close to $4,000 in donations!!
Last week, CBS News health segment featured the medicinal properties of Ginger in a person’s diet with regards to colon cancer. Dr. Bernstein and I were part of the health segment.
It’s been 3 years since my diagnosis, and a lot has changed since that diagnosis. Thank god I’m still cancer free, I still visit my oncologist every quarter and get CT scans every 6 months.
Two months after my operation (in March) I lost my job, or rather - the office itself closed, putting 18 people out of work. Although I was bummed out to be out of work but at the same time grateful that I’m celebrating my 46th birthday at the same time. To me, it was just yesterday when I was diagnosed and wondered if I was going to see my next birthday. I was out of work for over a year and I decided to do some volunteer work at the very hospital I had the surgery. Well… that volunteer work did turn into a job, it’s part time but I am in the Union with benefits. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to pursue my interest in becoming a nurse, so I’ve started working on my pre-requisites I need to finish in order to apply to nursing school. Since I already have a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Communication arts all I need is the science courses.
Sounds easier than it is. These science courses are challenging, I’m taking one course at a time at BMCC. But I’ happy I’m doing it - I feel like a sense of accomplishment each time I complete a course.
Oh yes… I almost forgot… I designed a logo and a tee shirt for colon cancer awareness called “Get Screened Now!”, I designed other products such as teddy bears, mugs, waterbottles and other products - here’s the website, check it out: www.getscreenednow.org. I created a day for Get Screened Now! - March 22.
I also speak in colon cancer awareness events held at community centers and hospitals - I work with doctors and patient advocates and at the speaking engagements I give away a teddy bear for every person who signs up for a screening. any people like the teddies - people’s eyes light up when I present them to the audience. The next step? perhaps forming a non-profit so I could apply for grants to continue to distribute the tees and teddies and continue speaking at engagements.
My journey started out innocently enough, during a doctor’s visit a blood test reveled that I was anemic so my doctor followed up with a plethora of additional tests of everything under the sun, more blood work, and other samples which shall remain nameless but one could use their imagination.
While waiting for the results of these tests and consequently the follow-up consult. I came home early one evening and turned the TV on.
This was late August 2008.
Oprah was on.
The show was going to cut to commercial with Oprah’s words “when we come back Dr. Oz will have the poop discussion”.
Dr. Oz is on!! And… he’s going to have WHAT discussion?! Did I hear right?
That got my attention.
So I sat down and heard Dr. Oz’s description of “good poop” and “bad poop”.
As he was describing the “bad poop” I realized that I had most… if not all… those symptoms.
“I don’t remember the last time I saw a “C” or “S” shape” I said outloud to myself.
Then Dr Oz mentioned that if there is increased frequency in any or all symptoms to discuss it with your Doctor.
Back to my doctor’s office two weeks later, the results of all the tests showed that I was enemic. Thinking the symptoms was stress related I nevertheless happen to tell my doctor of the Oprah episode with Dr. Oz and how my symptoms were increasing in frequency. She decided to send me to the gastroenterologist – just to be safe.
A month later I’m discussing my symptoms with the gastroenterologist …to be noted… I didn’t have any bleeding or pain (or any other external symptoms) and, although I’m too young to have one (45) – he schedules a Colonoscopy based on the symptoms that was provided to me by Dr. Oz. with his poop discussion.
Three weeks later I’m back at the Gastroenterologist’s office having the colonoscopy. I must admit… the hardest part of the exam is the prepping the day before. You had to drink this liquid from a big plastic jug the Dr. gives you, it comes with 4 flavor packets. Everyone I talked to who had the procedure said that the Pineapple flavor is the best – so I mixed the Pineapple flavor with the liquid in the plastic jug and started drinking.
Having the procedure was easy; I was basically knocked out during the whole event.
There I was back in the examination room waiting for the doctor to come in with the results.
Being that I always eat well (basically a Mediterranean diet) along with an active lifestyle (working out at the gym 6 days a week & tons of walking… this is NY after all) I was expecting a clean bill of health.
Then the Dr. walked in with a concerned look in his eyes and the announcement that he had to stop the procedure due to “an obstruction”.
This was on December 31st, 2008.
At that moment my mind went blank, “an obstruction… what does that mean?” deep down knowing full well what it meant, but I had to hear it from him.
“There’s something in the way, I couldn’t go any further”. He replied, “I need you to lie on the table”. Which I did, still trying to comprehend what’s happening.
He felt my abdomen and replied that he could feel something on my right side. “See, on your left side I feel nothing” he said as he was kneading my left side, “but on the right I could feel something… right here” as he kneaded my right side.
“I’m going to send you to get a CT scan, I’ll have the front desk make the appointments”.
A week later I was in Beth Israel Hospital getting a CT scan. As I was in the waiting room drinking this liquid before the procedure I looked around at the other patients waiting to have similar testing done. Not one of them looked to be under 60. “What am I doing… here?” I said to myself as I was drinking this liquid. Still in disbelief, I was convinced that the CT scan would reveal that everything is negative, and the Dr. was wrong.
I went about my life and pushed back the thought of the “obstruction” until the following week when I went back to the Gastroenterology office with the results.
I was back in the Gastroenterology exam room when he came in with the same concerned look in his eyes.
That made me worried.
“Well, you have a large tumor which points to Colon Cancer”.
First disbelief crossed my mind… then with a nervous laugh I replied that he must have the wrong file, I’m the healthiest person I know.
He looked down at the file and said… “No… I’ll read you the results of the CT scan…”.
As he was reading the results my mind was racing… how could this be happening to me?!! Why would this be happening… to me?!!
And me without a bucket list!
My life flashed before me, grateful for my past accomplishments but was looking forward to a future with many more.
“What’s the next step”? I asked.
“The next step is a surgical consult, you will need to have this tumor removed immediately, I know of an excellent surgeon that has performed many procedures, I’ll have the front desk make the appointment”
“Ok, that’s fine” I replied stunned, I looked down my PDA and saw the time; I made a remark that I wouldn’t be too late for work.
“Your going to back work?” he replied, shocked.
“Yes… what else should I do?”
That’s how I handle stressful situations; I would keep busy so I wouldn’t have to think about it.
Thinking is bad in these situations.
After the front desk made the appointment for the surgical consult I went outside, which in early January happened to be the coldest day to the year. I called my friend to tell her what happened.
Funny thing is, I just started this job in New Jersey back in Late August and just past the probation period, and I now have health insurance.
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
The appointment for the surgical consult was a week away-
“Is that the earliest?” I asked the receptionist, wanting to see the surgeon that very afternoon.
“Yes, that’s the earliest” she said as she looked at me with sad, concerned eyes as she proceeded to write the info on an appointment card… I guess she knew.
I left the Gastro Dr.s office in that bitter cold January morning and called my friend to tell her the news. She said her mom had the same thing 10 years prior and it was caught in time before it metastasized, it too was a tumor.
“How big was it?” I asked as I walked to the train station to the Port Authority. “About an inch” the voice on the other end of my PDA replied.
“This one’s bigger”, I answered, ignoring the cold “How old was your mom when she was diagnosed?” “She was 62″
“You see, that’s where I’m in shock, I’m way too young to have this happen” (I was 45) I said in disbelief.
“Try not to think of it”, (easier said than done) “When is the consult? I’ll go with you, I’ll call later”
I called another dear friend of mine while I was waiting for the bus to take me to work at the Port Authority.
I went to work that day not confiding to anyone. As it happens, it was a colleagues birthday that January 9th , and … as the office celebrated with a collaborative “Happy birthday” followed by cake I couldn’t help but wonder if this was going to be my last year on earth… I thought as a slice of cake was handed to me.
The appointment day finally arrived, it was early morning and I had two friends of mine join me for both moral support and to absorb the information since I was still in a state of dazed shock.
At the waiting room my friends and I sat down and, while they talked about everyday stuff I was busy filling out the paperwork that was handed to me. Before long my name was called, and while my friends and I entered the room I was greeted by a woman with caring big blue eyes and bright smile wearing the familiar garb doctors wear – long white overcoat complete with stethoscope around her neck. She introduced herself as the Surgeon’s physician’s assistant. She instructed us to be seated and the surgeon will be in shortly.
After a few long minutes in came the surgeon, I was amazed at how young he looked.
He has a handsome compassionate face, a great disposition complete with a quick smile, a twinkle in his eye and soft voice.
He exuded confidence regarding the pending surgery; he gave best case and worst case scenarios, Best case being that the tumor is completely removed followed by a 6 month stint of chemotherapy as a precaution. Worst case is that they operate and find that they can’t remove the tumor because of its size; at that point I will be given chemo treatments until the tumor is small enough so that they could operate and remove it.
“How big is the tumor?” I was able to ask.
“Oh, it’s large” he replied. “Would you like to see it?”
Before I had a chance to respond …he did something I was not prepared for… he pulled up my CT scan showing my tumor in all its glory right there in the 15 inch monitor. Next thing I knew I was face to face with my new enemy… I was shocked at the sight and relieved that my friends were there taking notes… because I was too stunned.
“What’s the size?” I asked, fixated on the monitor.
“Well it’s….” there was a measurement in centimeters in the middle of the screen next to image of the tumor, he started counting down with the mouse… “One, two three, four, five…” that’s where the measurement ended and the length of the tumor went beyond that.
“It looks to be about the size of a grapefruit”
There was a moment of stunned silence in the office.
A friend of mine asked what stage it is – “Stage 3” he replied. He went on to say that, based on its size; it’s about three years old.
That means it formed when I was 42!
Who thinks about getting a colonoscopy at 42?!! My biggest worry at that time was if I was pregnant/not pregnant, not if I had a mad polyp growing in my colon.
As if he read my mind the surgeon said that it started out as a polyp, and then it just grew.
“But… I had no symptoms, no bleeding, pain…anything” I said. Then I told him of the Oprah episode I just by chance watched in which Dr. Oz talked about “The poop discussion”. With that the surgeon turned to my friends and with a smile said “The poop discussion?”
We talked about that and how lucky I was to have caught the episode, recognized the symptoms and talked to my Dr. about it.
No joke, I said to myself.
“Why didn’t I have any pains if it was that size” I asked.
The surgeon explained that it’s the location- it’s on the right side – The tumor was in the Caesum which is a saclike cavity. It’s the large blind pouch forming the beginning of the large intestine.
The Caesum has the small opening where the green like liquid substance empties into before it goes to the large intestine which extracts moisture from food residues which are later excreted as feces – so the symptoms wouldn’t have surfaced until it was in the late stages.
He also mentioned that the tumor was pressing up against the muscles of my abdomen, and it’s dangerously close to my kidney – but not to worry – the kidney is clear so it looks like it could be saved.
I was at risk of losing a kidney?! This was just too much information to grasp. Although it was still early in the morning… I was already in the mood for a stiff drink.
Next thing I knew I was laying on the examination table and the surgeon was kneading the right side of my abdomen. “Yes, I could feel it right here” he said.
“Are you busy this afternoon? Can the surgery be done then?” I said half-jokingly. I just wanted this thing out… now!
The surgeon laughed and said it will be done on the 27th; this was the 16th of January … almost 2 weeks away.
One of my friends was busy writing everything down; grateful she was doing this since I was in no way capable of such a task.
I remember the physician’s assistant was back in the office talking to the surgeon. Then I went with her to her office as the surgeon said his goodbyes and runs off, followed by my friends saying their goodbyes as they ran off to work.
Alone with the physician’s assistant she told me of the next steps and gave me a printout of how to prep myself days before surgery.
"Any questions?" she asked
"No, I think you covered everything" I replied.
Little did I know what was in store for me…
Next thing I remember I was on the Port Authority bus on my way back to work, trying to absorb the morning’s events.