It was September of 2008, and I was a substitute teacher for the Ottumwa Community School District. Two years prior to this my husband, a maintenance specialist for a Forklift Company, tore the sciatic nerve in his left leg, was unemployed and involved in a workmen’s comp suit so we had no health insurance. We could have continued his company health insurance out of pocket, but couldn’t afford the insurance and still pay the rest of our bills. Substitute teachers in Iowa have no benefits. We work on a day to day basis, on an on-call basis, so I had to be good at my job to have steady employment, which I was.
I was subbing in a high school chorus room the first time I had an episode of diarrhea so severe I had no control over my bowels. Fortunately for me, the teacher had a student teacher in the classroom, so I called the high school secretary, told her I had to leave immediately, and to please send a replacement for me ASAP. Then I called the board secretary and told her the same thing. Finally, I took my button-up sweater off, tied it around my waist so it covered up my touché and quickly headed for the parking lot.
As I literally fled the building, it crossed my mind that I could have colon cancer. I’d never had diarrhea like this in my life, and I had a moment of full-blown panic, thinking about my lack of medical insurance. I tanked up on Immodium AD for a week, and seemed to have it under control for a month.
The following month I had another bout of similar severity. In October, my first cousin was in hospice in critical condition with colon cancer. Two evenings before she passed away, I and three other family members went to visit her in the hospital. It was a tough visit on so many levels. I felt for her grieving family. Sue Ann, herself, was the epitome of gracious calm. She had reached the serene point of patient acceptance, but all of us were suffering some heartbreak over why this vibrant young woman couldn’t shake this horrible disease off. After I told her I loved her and kissed her good-bye, I went out to the parking lot and looked at the stars, asking God, “What am I going to do if I have colon cancer too?” I didn’t hear any answer.
After that, I had the diarrhea once a month, on a regular basis. Each episode would take up to five days to recover from. In December, two days before Christmas, I remember having blood in my stool. I finally broached the subject of colon cancer with my husband. We discussed the lack of insurance, and Mike assured me we’d figure something out.
The middle of February, my mother went to Hospice with congestive heart failure. For the first month, I and my sisters slept there with her. Then one night, I was so sick, it was all I could do to put one foot in front of another one as I made multiple trips to the bathroom all night long. I asked my doctor, who was also my mom’s doctor, for something to see me through this, and went home to sleep it off.
My doctor wanted me in the hospital for some tests, but I convinced him this wasn’t the time or place for me to abandon my mother to take care of myself. However, that was also when I learned I had lost over 20 pounds. This was practically a confirmation to me that I had cancer. To lose 20 pounds when I wasn’t even trying was next to impossible unless something was horribly wrong with me.
It was at hospice where I learned about Iowa Care. My cousin, who had had gastric bypass, was having his own health issues, and somebody had steered him to Iowa Care. I persuaded my husband to contact Wapello County DHS and ask them for an Iowa Care application for me. I truthfully don’t know what it took for him to get it, because I had been to DHS asking for assistance earlier and had been told I wasn’t eligible for anything, but at the end of March, I received notification I had been approved and I would be paying a premium of $67.00 a month for it.
Now I just needed an appointment in Iowa City, which is the only place Iowa Care can be used. I went so far as to ask a social worker to arrange an appointment for me. However, on Sunday, April 26, 2009, I woke up doubled over with cramps. I couldn’t find a comfortable position to recline or set in. I called University of Iowa Hospitals ER, and they advised me to go to my local hospital to be stabilized before attempting to transport to Iowa City, which I finally did.
The weather was horrendous, thunderstorms pounding South Central Iowa relentlessly. At the local hospital I was given a cat scan, some pain meds, and was told a surgeon was being called in to remove my appendix. I said, “Sorry, but don’t call him. I’m going to Iowa City.” In my gut, I knew I wasn’t having an appendix attack.
They refused to let me go under my own steam. I was put in an ambulance, and they actually located hospitals in route, in case they had to pull over and rush me in for emergency surgery somewhere on the way. That hospital visit and ambulance ride cost me over $7,000.00, which I’m still paying for.
I remember the ambulance racing through the storm, thunder and lightning crashing around us, me strapped to a gurney in the ambulance, and my nurse giving me pain meds through an IV. It was a nightmare of a trip, and was pouring down rain by the time we reached ER there.
By the time I met Dr. Hoshi, the surgeon at University of Iowa Hospitals, though, Dr. Hoshi had already read my cat scan results and told me he believed I had colon cancer. What could I say? I told him, “I have to agree with your diagnosis.” Then I went on to explain what had been going on with me.
I was admitted, given a blood transfusion, and put on serious pain meds. I was administering my own pain meds with a button on my IV poll. It only took them about 24 hours to take me off the morphine and put me on hydrocodone instead. The next four days are a blur. I know I was on a list for emergency surgery if I didn’t level off soon, but meanwhile some diagnostic tests were being run to give the surgeon a more definitive idea of just exactly where my cancer was.
I remember our first conversation was about Stage 1 Colon Cancer. After a barium x-ray, Dr. Hoshi came back in and said he was thinking it was more likely it was a Stage 2 Colon Cancer.
At this point I explained to Dr. Hoshi that my cousin, Sue Ann, had died off colon cancer in October after going through 2 rounds of chemo. I mentioned that my grandmother had had colon cancer also. Then I explained to him that I had adopted my young grandson, who was only four years old at the time, and while most women my age did not have an elementary aged child to raise, I did, and he was to do what he thought would save my life.
I was in the hospital 12 days waiting for a slot in surgery to open up. After that first 48 hours, I was pretty much stable as long as I ate a mostly liquid diet. The department head advised me that food lodged in that little flap called the iliac between my colon and large intestine, could set off another episode like the one that had brought me to the hospital in an ambulance in April so I felt like I was walking a tightrope, waiting to fall off on one side on the other. Eating wasn’t a priority to me anyway, because truthfully, I didn’t have an appetite.
My mother actually made it home from hospice before I had my surgery. My dad had to find somebody to stay with her while he came up to Iowa City to be there for my surgery.
I remember Doctor Hoshi being at the foot of my hospital bed when I came out from under the anesthesia, he and about five student doctors. “It was Stage 3 colon cancer,” he told me, and my heart sunk.
“Stage 3 colon cancer is what Sue Ann had,” I managed to choke out around the lump in my throat.
“There were infected lymph nodes,” Dr. Hoshi explained. “The cancer had eaten through the colon wall. I did a lot more drastic surgery than I might have needed to. I took out more than half your right bowel, and half of your colon.”
“It’s okay,” I replied, “We discussed this prior to surgery, and I told you to do what you thought you had to do to save my life. I don’t intend to start doubting you now.”
“You’re going to need chemo,” he said. “I think only the four lymph nodes adjacent to the tumor were infected, but we’ll know more when the lab results are back. I took out 27 lymph nodes to be tested. If only four were diseased that’s a very good thing. It reduces the risk the cancer may have metastacized.”
He urged me to contact immediate family members and advise them to have a colonoscopy ASAP I assured him I’d already discussed it with them.
On June 26, 2009, I had my first of 8 chemo treatments. I was scheduled for 12, but my body didn’t tolerate them well.
This month I’m three years cancer free. Next week, I’m scheduled for a follow-up cat scan at University of Iowa Hospitals. The staff at University of Iowa Hospitals is amazing, and my oncology team was always available to me, personally supportive, and in touch with my emotional as well as my physical condition. I’m eternally and everlastingly grateful to them for their outstanding treatment and care.