'My life at that very moment changed'

"My name is Kristi and I am a Stage IIIB Colorectal Cancer survivor. 
 
I am 47 years old, married and have one, beautiful 22 year old daughter.  Born and raised, and still a resident of Chattanooga, TN,  I was blessed to be able to stay home from the day my daughter was born.  So, even though my "nest is empty" now I am still a stay home housewife.  Until my cancer diagnosis the hardest part of my day was deciding what to cook for supper... 
 
In all my years growing up, I knew a few family members that had been diagnosed with cancer, but because it wasn't my mother or father I guess I never worried about it.  Even when the symptoms began - I pretended they weren't there. For over a year I ignored it. Wow, what a huge mistake that was...  You see, the only symptom I had was vaginal "pressure" pain during intercourse with my husband.  No pain any other time.  No blood in stools.  No mucus.  No rectal changes at all, just vaginal discomfort during sex.  So, I ignored it for the first few months, because it was "just" a minimal ache.  Then as the pain increased, making intimacy almost impossible, I decided to make an appointment with the Gynecologist.
 
My first gynecologist exam won me a trip straight to the gastroenterologist. The first visit to the gastroenterologist won me a biopsy. Immediately after the biopsy, the doctor sat me down in the office and said, “Are you familiar with Farrah Fawcett?”  Oh, yes, I knew who Ms. Fawcett was!!!  I grew up in the age of big hair and Charlie's Angels ... Long Pause...  I knew right then I was in trouble. Just six months earlier I had watched Ms. Fawcett’s battle with anal canal cancer publicized on television. “I believe you have anal canal cancer” he said. I don’t remember much after that. All I kept seeing in my mind was Farrah Fawcett, her pain, losing her hair and finally her life. When I made it home, my mind was racing in thousands of directions. Worst of which, I was planning my own funeral in my head. My body started shaking uncontrollably and no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t stop it.  
 
Three days later I learned the biopsy revealed Colon Cancer. One colonoscopy later, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIB Colon Cancer that started 2-3cm inside the rectum and 4-6 positive lymph nodes. The tumor was as large as an orange and had invaded the back of my vaginal wall. This meant not only would I be having a colon resection surgery, I would also need vaginal reconstruction.

My life at that very moment changed.
 
In September 2010, I started my 5 week round of 5FU chemotherapy.  At the same time, I started my first of 28 daily radiation treatments.
 
No one WANTS to undergo chemotherapy or radiation, but the way I looked at it is that you must "pay" for the things you want.  I wanted to be rid of the cancer.  So, the question was, "What am I willing to 'pay'?"  The answer was easy. I was willing to pay ANY cost to stay alive.  So I looked at the treatment phase as a temporary segment of my life.  Yea, it took a year, it was difficult, but I always looked at it as temporary.  I knew if I could tough it out I would be okay.  So I did.
 
If I had one thing to say about the colon cancer chemotherapy to those who are fearing their first treatment...  It is NOT as bad as your Google search said it would be.  There will be days that test you, but you will be stronger than you know.  And, I did not lose my hair.  That is always a big fear... it was probably my biggest one.  I would see large amounts of hair coming out in my fingers (the last few weeks of my treatments), so it did thin out, but no one ever noticed, *grin*
 
My abdominal resection/vaginal reconstructive surgery was amazing.  I had a surgical oncologist (Dr. Charles Portera, Jr.) and a plastic surgeon (Dr. Jimmy Waldrop) in the operating room with me during my surgery.  The surgical oncologist resected/removed my entire pelvic region... rectum and vaginal canal. He then created my colostomy on the left side of my abdomen. The plastic surgeon then removed a 20" x 5" flap of skin from the right side of my abdomen, and used it to reconstruct the exposed rectal region and created a new vaginal canal for me.  Amazing, just amazing.  This procedure took 9 hours in surgery and six months to recover, but now, I am sexually, a functional woman.  "Functional" being the key word.  I could go in to great detail, but I won't.  Let's just say "sex" is defined much differently now.  We have had to learn how to express our passion in other ways, both sexually and emotionally...  I'm not gonna lie, it's been very difficult and of course, there are obstacles... but I am alive and here today to show that even under the worst of circumstances, happiness and satisfaction can be obtained - both mentally and physically.  *smile*
 
In May of 2011 I had genetic testing.  I found out that I am a carrier of HNPCC - Lynch Syndrome.   I am positive for the MSH2 mismatched chromosome.  My daughter was tested shortly thereafter and also came back positive.  This knowledge will inevitably save her life.  Starting last year, she will be screened annually for cancer, and if something were to arise, it would be caught early.  Do I feel guilt for passing this on to her?  Passing on an 85% chance of developing cancer - Of course I feel guilty.  I think any good mother would.  Would I have not had her, knowing  the chance of passing it on to her?  No way.  I'd choose having her every time.
 
 
 
 
Now, three years after my Stage IIIB diagnosis, I have a daughter who just graduated college and is in the beginning of a beautiful life, a supportive husband, a colostomy bag, and a newly reconstructed vagina *smile*.  Notice the smile?  It represents how happy I am with my results and all that I learned during this journey.  I am thankful to be alive.  And I'm grateful for every breath I take.  Plain and simple.  There is no line too long, no traffic too slow, or no person angry enough to ruin my day.  It is a conscious choice I make, and I like living this way.  
 
 
So, What am I doing today?  Today I am an independent advocate for early detection and screenings.  I am a Volunteer/Buddy for both the Colon Cancer Alliance and the Greater Chattanooga Colon Cancer Foundation (coming soon).  I am also part of a private group on FaceBook called COLONTOWN.  There you will find support from other patients and caregivers 24/7.  I am the administrator of a private group on FaceBook called "The Reconstruction Zone".  The Zone is a sub-group of COLONTOWN.  The Reconstruction Zone was created specifically for women who have special needs due to vaginal reconstruction, so they have a place to 'meet' and support each other. So far, we have only found 20 or so women who have had this surgery.  So, if you know a woman out there, who feels all alone in her "situation", please send her my way.  *smile*  
 
If you are a colon cancer patient/survivor or caregiver - 
Please join us in Colontown:
 
In all of the groups I mentioned above, I talk to newly diagnosed patients, answer their questions and give them helpful hints. Most importantly, I try to give them hope."
---Kristi Holcomb

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