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How a Routine Shoulder Injury Led to the Discovery of Colon Cancer and a Life-Altering Journey
In spring 2016, I entered the emergency room (ER) with one purpose in mind: finding relief for my persistent shoulder pain. Little did I know that this visit would uncover a far more serious condition. My experience with colon cancer began as a mere suspicion, but it quickly turned into a life-altering journey that tested my strength and resilience.
A Curious Twist of Fate
During my visit to the ER, I mentioned my assumption of having a pinched nerve in my shoulder due to a recent backpacking trip. I anticipated receiving a simple shot and further instructions for consulting with an orthopedist. Instead, I received an unexpected diagnosis: colon cancer that had metastasized to my liver. The ER doctor's curiosity was piqued by an abnormal result in my routine bloodwork, setting the stage for what would become an extraordinary sequence of events.
Had the doctor been fatigued or less inquisitive about a routine shoulder injury, my colon cancer might have gone undetected. At that point, I hadn't exhibited any symptoms, but the doctor decided to dig deeper. He ordered an ultrasound of my liver, despite my protestations about the nature of my visit. As the ultrasound results came in, he didn't find them satisfactory, prompting him to order a CT scan. The discoveries made during that scan made us forget entirely about my initial shoulder complaint.
A Battle for Survival Begins
The following day, I underwent a colonoscopy, where an oncologist made a startling revelation. My colon was riddled with tumors that had begun to spread. Given the gravity of my situation, the doctor predicted I had a mere six months to live. While chemotherapy could potentially extend my life, it was unlikely that I would survive long enough to undergo surgery. With my four sons in mind, I couldn't allow myself to give up. I chose to fight, opting for chemotherapy as my first line of defense.
Against all odds, I persevered through 12 rounds of grueling chemotherapy, barely making it to the surgical stage. In a courageous move, the surgeons at the Cleveland Clinic agreed to perform the risky operation. They removed the right lobe of my liver along with my colon. Additionally, they installed a hepatic arterial infusion (HAI) pump—an innovative device that delivers chemotherapy directly into the organ—within the remaining left lobe of my liver. At this point, eight months had passed since my initial diagnosis.
Adapting to a New Normal
Life after the surgery necessitated adjusting to the absence of my colon and the regrowth of my liver's right lobe. However, in August 2017, my health took a sudden turn for the worse. My liver, burdened by the multiple surgeries to address scar tissue and complications, began to fail. My doctor, usually armed with a backup plan, confessed his uncertainty, stating, "I don't know what we can do to keep you alive."
Yet, against all odds, an improbable solution emerged—one that seemed too far-fetched to be plausible. Liver transplants for individuals in my condition and cancer stage had never been successfully carried out in the United States. However, given my relatively young age at the time of diagnosis and my overall health, apart from the concealed cancer, I embarked on a quest to find a donor. Utilizing Facebook ads and the support of my church community, I declared my need, and the response was overwhelming. Fifty individuals offered to help, among whom Jason, a fellow churchgoer, emerged as the perfect match. On April 23, 2018, half of his liver was removed and transplanted into me.
A New Perspective on Life
In the seven years since my cancer diagnosis, I've realized that our time on Earth is uncertain, and mortality is not a distant concept. Cancer has taught me the importance of embracing life, taking ownership of my narrative, and living in the present moment. I've had the opportunity to form deep connections and relationships that I would never have experienced otherwise. Love and quality of time have become more significant than mere quantity.
During my advocacy work, I crossed paths with a man named Mike, who, like me, was a stage 4 cancer survivor. Although initially hesitant due to our shared circumstances, I soon understood that love could be measured by its quality and not its duration. We spent three beautiful years together until he passed away in my arms on March 4, 2022. The profound gift of love that we shared has forever blessed my life. Without cancer, I would never have experienced such deep and genuine affection.
A Purpose Found and a Call to Action
Cancer has fundamentally altered my life, reshaping me into a different person than I was before. Leveraging my background as an educator, I have transitioned into a career as a patient resource coordinator and advocate. Advocacy has become the most profound and fulfilling experience of my life. Through this journey, I've also become acutely aware of the privileges I enjoyed—exceptional care, comprehensive insurance, and the ability to advocate for myself. Recognizing these privileges has compelled me to raise my voice and demand better for others. Lives are being lost, and we must do everything in our power to improve the state of cancer care.
Ultimately, cancer is not the entirety of my story. It is merely the backdrop against which I have forged meaningful connections, transformed my perspective on life, and discovered my purpose. My story continues, and I am determined to make every moment count.
This resource was created with support from Merck.
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