Current Age (at time of profile):
How did you find out you were sick? What events led to the diagnosis?
I collapsed at a walk-in clinic in Kanata, Ontario, Canada. I had been mostly bedridden since March 1st after being diagnosed with mononucleosis by a walk-in clinic doctor. It now seemed that my condition was unexpectedly and rapidly worsening. By the end of March, I was so tired that I could not stand. I was crawling on my knees to go to the washroom and my body was not accepting food. I had dropped thirty pounds in three weeks which I was unaware of and my legs below the knee and feet were swollen to about three times the size. I was able to drive to a walk-in clinic where I collapsed. That day, I actually thought I was getting better because I could walk again. As soon as I entered the door, I collapsed and I was rushed to the emergency room at a near by hospital. The nurses and doctors had no idea what was wrong with me. They knew that I was dying and something had to be done as soon as possible to secure my survival. They did a blood test which revealed that I was severely anemic; so much so that a doctor remarked that I was lucky to be alive. My hemoglobin count was 22 (normal hemoglobin counts for women are supposed to be around 140). Four days and ten blood transfusions later I received a shocking diagnosis. No trace of mononucleosis could be found. Instead, I was suffering from a rare type of cancer.
What year was it? What was your age at the time?
March 30, 2004. I was 28 at the time.
At what level of education were you at diagnosis?
I have two degrees and actually had graduated from teachers college two-and-a-half years before falling ill.
What was your diagnosis?
A rare type of advanced colon cancer.
What were your first thoughts when diagnosed?
At 28 years old I did not expect to nearly die from a disease that ordinarily afflicts those who are twice my age. Understandably, my experience was deeply shocking to myself (both physically and mentally) and to my family. Prior to falling seriously ill I had been very much looking forward to starting a full-time contract position on April 13, 2004 as a Kindergarten teacher with the Ottawa Carleton Catholic School Board. It was to be the first time that I would have a classroom to call my own after scraping by for two-and-a-half years working at times as a sales clerk, tutor, nanny, receptionist and supply teacher following my graduation from teacher’s college. A job as a kindergarten teacher was what I had always dreamed about and I felt blessed to have finally been given the opportunity. Besides, as a former student with two degrees and a high debt load to match, I desperately needed full-time work. My one-year contract position would provide the key experience that I needed to open doors to future work as a full-time teacher. I was determined to start the job for which I had waited and worked towards for so long.
How did your family react?
My parents had to drive seven hours to see me. Thank God for my boyfriend and my mom. My boyfriend was there through it all. He worked and took care of me. He was my nurse, my replacement mom for a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen and my wonderful, don’t know what I would have done without, boyfriend.
What did your treatment consist of?
Medical Side: I went for surgery to remove a large tumor (which unbeknownst to me had developed over the past year or more) and a large portion of my large intestine was removed. I have about ¼ of a normal person’s large intestine now. I had been given a T4, N1 rating (T4 being the worst case scenario and N1 meaning that there were lymph nodes around the tumor that were infected). Unfortunately, for me, that meant that the tumor had spread and I would need to have chemotherapy. Throughout my time in the hospital and at home, I had no pain and I thought to myself how could I have not known that I was so sick and dying. Everyday in that hospital for two weeks, I was scared because I had never been in a hospital over night or day before or for such a long period of time. Each day came with new challenges, eating or the lack of, getting up, tests (CT scan, Colonoscopy) and needles everywhere and pills that were unable to be given to me by mouth because I could not swallow. My parents had to drive seven hours to see me. Thank God for my boyfriend and my mom. I looked forward to watching Ellen everyday on the hospital television and getting a good laugh since I was being poked and prodded every four hours. They always say laughter is the best medicine. I finally left the hospital on April 9th in a weakened state but very grateful to be alive. On the advice of my surgeon I gave myself an extra week of rest and then reported for work on April 22, only thirteen days after leaving the hospital. In May I was told by my medical oncologist to expect to be off work for nine months while I underwent six months of aggressive chemotherapy treatments. I refused to stop working because I couldn’t bear (or afford) to give up my job. My chemotherapy treatments were not easy for me. I received injections for the first five days of each month. I would work a full day, go and do my treatment while putting my feet in ice and chewing on ice (and not trying to puke at the same time), come home, go to bed, get up the next day and do it all over again.
What is your current medical status?
I have been cancer free since March 2005. I have started working out again and am getting back into shape.
How is life different for you now post diagnosis (physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually)?
I was happy that I had finished my chemotherapy treatments and I absolutely loved my teaching job. Naturally I also derived comfort from the fact that my financial situation had improved to the point where I could begin to pay off my student loan debt which at the time was the biggest concern on my mind besides having cancer. I thought after having cancer, it couldn’t get any worse but it did. My financial situation was that I have three student loans. While I was sick in the hospital, a miscommunication with my bank resulted in me being harassed on the phone by a collection agency everyday throughout my recovery from surgery and subsequent chemotherapy. As a hard-working, educated professional who tried her best to move forward with her life during and after a devastating illness, I worked full-time until June 2005 doing a job that I loved while continuing to recover. I have had a difficult time financially since graduation from teacher’s college and have managed to pay back some of my student loan debt. Although I have been cancer free since March 2005, my life continues to be full of ups and downs. For instance, I now find myself unemployed and having to scrape by to make payments on my loans. I must also cope with some continuing health issues. I have trouble with eating because my large intestine is very small. I have gained weight due to the treatments and I tire easily. In short, I am still dealing with everything that took place in 2004.
What really motivated you to keep going while you were sick?
I think I owe the success of my continuing recovery in part to the students and staff of Dr. F. J. McDonald Catholic School who have a special place in my heart and who I will never forget. They were wonderful and very supportive, helping out whenever they could and just listening when I needed an ear or taking over my class so that I could rest a moment. Some days, I would have trouble walking because my feet were so raw from the medicine eating away at them. I lost most of my hair, gained and lost weight but those kids and my staff were my rock and my sanity.
What lessons or messages have you taken away from your experience?
Cancer is often associated with very young or else middle- aged or older persons. Those of us in the less-visible 18-35 age group who suffer from cancer often encounter unique problems and challenges. I would like to work toward creating an awareness of the special circumstances and needs of this age group. My experience with cancer also taught me another very important lesson about myself– I always thought I was a wimp but after this, I know that nothing is too big to conquer.
Did you attend any support groups during your challenge?
I met a wonderful group of people in Ottawa called Connections 18-35 (a group of people between the ages of 18-35 with different types of cancer but going through the same emotional, social and financial aspects) who have listened and helped me through everything.
How are you connected with Young Adult Cancer?
Recently, the support group and I went on a retreat in St. John’s , Newfoundland, where we met others like us from all over Canada . They were a wonderful group of people, all between the ages of 18-35, who have helped me to find peace within myself. I met them through www.youngadultcancer.ca.