If you think the proposition of a colonoscopy is scary it’s nothing when facing down stage 3 colorectal cancer at 37 years of age. As I entered Beth Israel Cancer Center in Plymouth, MA I didn’t know what to expect. What was it like to see someone receiving their chemo infusion? To sit in a room with 8 recliners, all which would be filled with people receiving their treatments that day. Jenna walked in and was greeted by supportive staff and volunteers who get to know their patients, give a friendly face and even one nice gentleman who brought her a piece of carrot cake to celebrate her very last trip to receive her chemo. Everybody was congratulatory with one person remarking it was an “off chemo party” today. And as I sat there with her she shared that while this was her last time there she would be sent home with a chemo pump for 48 more hours, back for removal and scheduled for another surgery so this is a great step but just isn’t the end of her journey yet.
Just about 1 year ago in May 2017 Jenna noticed some things were off about her bowels and initially chalked it up to IBS. Looking back now she knows they were symptoms of a much larger issue. Like people do after some time she saw a doctor and after testing confirmed blood in her stool. These words tend to make us uncomfortable, I urge you to read on. Being okay with the words can save your life someday!
They ordered a colonoscopy on July 10th and no one including the doctors expected to find a mass that they thought was cancerous. When asked what that felt like Jenna explained she spent a long time in a state of disbelief, it’s devastating and surreal.
The day she received her results she went to work and now doesn’t quite know how she did that. She couldn’t talk about it but wanted people to know she had her appointment later in the day. After all the customers left the staff sat and cried together with her. They have been wonderful to give her the time off she has needed and keep her position. After her initial cancer diagnosis she didn’t want to celebrate her birthday but her parents threw a huge amazing party resulting in a large outpouring of love. Jenna believes everyone with cancer deserves a party and the support she’s received has been uplifting and moving.
She would need surgery to remove the mass but before she could do that she would have to go through chemo and radiation in an attempt to shrink it down. So over the course of 6 weeks she received 20 rounds of radiation Monday through Saturday and had a chemo pump attached to her body dispensing chemo. This meant over the course of a week she had 48 hours free from being hooked to a pump which dispensed the chemo through a port in her chest. Since the port can’t get wet things like washing her hair meant her mom helping wash it in the sink like when you’re little. Her last day of radiation was October 2nd and for 2 more month the radiation would continue to work within her body until her surgery date on December 8th. Her surgery removed part of colon and her rectum and what should have been a 3-4 day hospital stay turned into 10 due to had complications, an abscess and 2 spiked fevers.
Though her surgery meant she was technically cancer free to ensure no cells got away Jenna set out on her last 8 chemo infusion over the course of 16 weeks. Her first 4 treatments consisted of 2 different drugs but after nasty side effects they moved her down to just 1 which causes nausea and brain fog but are more manageable. She also feels thankful that her chemo didn’t have the side effect of losing her hair. She loves her hair and didn’t want to lose it. Sometimes you want to be a little bit anonymous and not look like you’re sick or have everybody know you have cancer. Doing normal things like going to the grocery store and walking about with no one knowing you have cancer was part of the whole surreal aspect of it.
So now her chemo treatments are complete. No one has said the words you’re in remission so Jenna hasn’t quite let herself celebrate that yet. It’s not the end of the journey and she tends to not celebrate what she’s accomplished b/c she’s thinking about what she still has to come. Colorectal cancer has a long treatment process due to 1st round of chemo, a surgery, 2nd round of chemo and another surgery. It’ll be at least a full year from the time she’s healed from her 1st colonoscopy to healing from her final surgery.
Through this she found a community on Instagram and a Facebook community of people with the same cancer. All with different representational groups which have been a big help. It’s positive to connect with people going through similar battles, it gives you one thing in common and you get to become friends with people in their journeys. You can support people you’ve never met and that’s a cool thing though you also feel their losses too.
Her family has been the most supportive piece. Her mom is a retired nurse and breast cancer survivor. Her dad comes to every chemo session and both have come to her big appointments with her. Jenna’s nana was going through bladder cancer treatment at the same time so Jenna’s last day of radiation was her nana’s first day at same hospital. You develop a special connection when you’re going through similar things and she feels a new connection that she never felt before. Her entire family from aunts, uncles and cousins have given that outpouring of love and support. Immediately following her initial diagnosis she felt her late grandfather’s presence with her to remind her she’s not alone even when you are.
After you find out you have cancer everything else seems small. You look back at hard experiences and wonder why you wasted time, energy and tears on situations. And anything you might fear medically about going in for a test like a colonoscopy is far better than finding out you have cancer. Don’t be a wimp about it. You’re better off dealing with that discomfort than finding out you have cancer. What she’s found is the fear itself is the worst part. Worse than chemo or surgery. She had a moment where she realized it’s never as bad as she feared it was going to be.
Jenna now plans on getting a kayak to get out and enjoy the water and the beauty of the world around us. That’s what she wants to do, enjoy just being.
Young people are getting colorectal cancer at greater and greater rates. People under 50 are now 4 times more likely than they were 20-30 years ago and they don’t know the reason. Listen to your body, don’t be afraid of the words, talk to a doctor.
“That suggests that what you fear most of all, is fear itself.” – J.K. Rowling The Prisoner of Azkaban