Most people think of March as a turning point in the year when the days get longer, the flowers are budding and the birds are singing.
To me, a colon cancer survivor, March means an opportunity to tell my story and encourage others to be proactive about their health. Since 2000, the U.S. has dedicated the month of March as National Colon Cancer Awareness Month.
My journey began in September of 2011 when I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. I was stunned by the diagnosis. After all, I was only 45 years old, a mother of three who exercised regularly and ate relatively well.
But the truth is, cancer doesn’t discriminate.
Throughout the next six months, as I digested the news, I went to a number of doctor appointments, got “second opinions”, went under the knife and endured months of chemotherapy – all while maintaining my job at VA. Through all of this, I realized that it all could have been prevented with one simple procedure: a colonoscopy.
You see, I had symptoms. Most of the time my symptoms were very minimal, such as bloating when I ate certain foods, but they were still there. I self-diagnosed myself with irritable bowel syndrome, possibly Crohn’s Disease, etc. I researched information on the Internet, altered what I ate and kept going. I did everything possible and looked for every excuse NOT to have a colonoscopy. The whole time I was avoiding this simple test, my cancer was growing and taking over my body. My doctor told me I had a very slow-growing tumor and that if I had been more proactive about getting the test, it might not have infiltrated the colon wall and reached my lymph nodes.
I have learned a lot from undergoing this journey. If you have a family member that was diagnosed with colon cancer you should have had a colonoscopy 10 years prior to their diagnosis date;iIf you are over 50, it’s a routine screening.
The most important thing I have learned is that you should listen to your body. You know your body better than anyone else. Be your own advocate and get the testing you deserve.
Many people have excuses like, “I hear the prep is awful.” I will tell you – chemotherapy is worse. If you still have reservations, think of those who love you. My disease had a tremendous impact on my family and friends. Every six months when I am scanned and my blood work is being done, my family sits on pins and needles waiting for the results.
So please, do yourself and those you love a favor – Be proactive and talk to your doctor to see if you should receive a colonoscopy.
Christine O’Donnell is currently the Assistant Chief of the Business Office and Privacy Officer at the Wilkes-Barre VA Medical Center. She joined VA more than seven years ago and most recently served as the Chief of the Business Office at the Lebanon VA Medical Center before joining the Wilkes-Barre team. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in September of 2011. Since that time she has advocated for Veterans and others to engage in proactive health management by obtaining the appropriate cancer screenings including colonoscopies.