My name is Amy. I am a physical therapist and a CrossFit athlete and yesterday I got diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s pretty crazy, very surreal, and so absurd I keep laughing and shaking my head. I’m 32 years old. I’m in the best shape of my life, the healthiest and strongest I’ve ever been and somehow I have cancer?
Heres the back story, if you’re squeamish just squint your eyes and blur the words on the page.
About 6 months ago I started noticing blood in the toilet after I’d poop. I’m in healthcare. I’ve worked for the past 8 years as a physical therapist in a hospital. I see patients who are the sickest of the sick, after a stroke, a heart attach, surgery, comas, in ICU, med/surg and telemetry. So I’m no stranger to illness, blood, vomit, drool, or wiping other people’s butts. I work closely with an amazing staff of nurses and doctors and surgeons. I read all their notes in detail, and beyond what I learned in college and graduate school have learned a lot about the human body and what it looks like when things go wrong.
I know it’s the dark poop that’s bad, the “tarry” stool, the “coffee ground” stool. That kind of blood means there’s a bleed somewhere in your upper digestive track. Bleed too much and you get anemia and hypovolemic shock. I’ve seen it at work plenty of times, gotten it smeared all over my gloves even. I know that red blood is much lower in your GI (gastro intestinal) track, no serious risk of anemia, most of the time it’s hemorrhoid or an anal or external cut. So when I started seeing red blood on the toilet paper and in the toilet bowl I shrugged my shoulders and flushed. “Ugh weightlifting,” I thought. Probably hemorrhoid from all the straining I do under a heavy barbell in Crossfit.
I started Crossfit 3 and a half years ago. I’m one of those people who had a gym membership for a year and went 5 times. I hate and cringe at the word exercise much less do it. I tell people that if I’d heard about Crossfit or known what it was when I started there’s no way I would have joined. The hype would have scared me away for sure. But instead I walked in, out of shape but with a strong athletic background, totally clueless. The intense workouts, where I could compete against myself, drew me in. I told everyone, I was doing Crossfit so that I could eat whatever I wanted. I explained to skeptics that I was sipping the koolaid with my eyes open. Then my competitive edge and semi perfectionist tendencies collided with weightlifting and intense workouts and this amazing community of people (I know everyone says that but it’s truuuuuue!) and I was hooked. I got addicted to the satisfaction of finishing workouts that seemed impossible, getting stronger, and my personality and character being challenged and stretched. I started doing extra training and joined the weightlifting club and doing competitions and all of a sudden fitness was a passion. I started eating clean because my crappy eat whatever I wanted diet wasn’t fueling my workouts and I kept feeling dizzy or hungover.
So all I knew about fitness and health and the human body said occasional blood was no big deal. When it got more consistent instead of resolving I went to see my primary doctor who agreed that it was probably hemrrhoids. But the bleeding continued and increased in frequency even. Then my low back started aching at night when I would lay down. I tried stretching it, rolling it out with a foam roller, digging my fist into the muscles at the small of my back. There was no relief and I also couldn’t reproduce my ache. “I know, I strained my psoas somehow!” But stretching and smashing my psoas didn’t help or reproduce the ache. It was diffused through my lower abdomen too and that’s when I realized “Man these are intestinal cramps!!”
Its important to interject here, and again, blur your vision sensitive ones, intestinal cramps are no stranger to me. I’ve had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) since I was a kid. ” I carry my stress in my bowels” I always say. Before school plays, soccer games, midterms, finals, diarrhea was the norm. Granted, these cramps felt different but still that’s what they were. They started waking me up in the middle of the night a couple times a week. I don’t remember when the mucous started but my 5x a night trips to the bathroom went from stool to just blood and mucus. I was moving, starting a physical therapy business out of my Crossfit gym, I was pretty stressed. Things slowed down but my bowels didn’t. I went on vacation with my family even and it went from a couple nights a week to every night of the night of the week and during the day too. There were days when I would make 15 plus trips to the bathroom and 5-10 times a night. This was obviously not my normal IBS. Google said it was ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Both of which are lifelong diagnosis requiring medications. From my perspective there was just no way. As things kept getting worse I had made an appointment to see a GI specialist. I wasn’t losing weight, my appetite wasn’t affected, my symptoms didn’t change with diet changes, I was competing in Crossfit competitions and PR’ing my WL (weight lifting). It couldn’t be anything that bad.
After 9 weeks of consistent aforementioned symptoms, I got in to see the GI doctor. After describing my symptoms and answering his questions he took me through his line of reasoning as to what could be going on. Bacterial or viral infection could be ruled out by the duration of my symptoms. Food allergy could be ruled out by the presence of blood. Ulcerative colitis was the most probable diagnosis because it matched all the symptoms. The colitis, or inflammation of the colon, causes diarrhea because the colon is too inflamed to absorb water. The ulcers or lesions often bleed and secrete mucous. Both can cause pain and intestinal spasms. No one knows what causes it, generally an autoimmune response treatable with medication but not curable. It can only be diagnosed with a colonoscopy, biopsies are taken of the ulcers and a pathologist diagnoses the lesions and the appropriate medication is prescribed based on these results. So a colonoscopy was scheduled 3 days later.
It’s important for you to understand how much I love food. I would say CrossFit has made this worse. When I get hungry or get that hollow stomach feeling, I get what I call the hungry panic. So you can only imagine how miserable I was during the pre colonoscopy liquid diet… it was AWFUL!! I loved getting my wisdom teeth out, that kind of diet is my jam! Jello, ice cream, chocolate pudding, smoothies, send it my way. But a clear liquid diet?! Almost as bad a the dread “colonoscopy prep”. I decided to go to work, per usual, staying home would just drive me crazy. At least if I’m seeing patients I’m distracted. I was counting on free jello and sympathetic coworkers. I wasn’t counting on the cafeteria to be out of jello. Instead I had to eat these citrus flavored gelatins they give to patients on a clear liquid diet. So by the time I got done with my work day I was low energy and definitely had the hungry panic. I had made myself a vat of lime jello the night before and thank God I did. I ate half of it in 5 minutes. That helped but my stomach knew it was fake. I just wanted carbs, crackers, toast, anything. Instead I got to start drinking the “prep”.
For a colonoscopy you can’t have your intestines with any “stool” in there obstructing vision so they flush it out of you with medication. This medication comes in a gallon and you have to drink all of it, one cup at a time every 15 minutes. It’s best chilled and over ice. I discovered it was also preferred with ginger ale, like a bad cocktail. In fact, if I pretended I was back in college and needing to chug light beer it also made it more bearable.
The next morning I headed into my colonoscopy. Pretty uneventful. What wasn’t uneventful was WAKING UP IN THE MIDDLE OF MY COLONOSCOPY!!!
Here’s where you have to know that I am a Christian. But not a religious Christian. What’s the point of that? I believe in a relationship with the Creator of the universe that gives me hope that I am never alone and faith that I am deeply loved in the darkest dingiest corners of my heart and that most importantly, nothing in my life is too trivial to go unnoticed or too big to be unmanageable. (Run-on sentence much?) So I think I woke up in the middle of my colonoscopy and remembered it because of what I saw. It’s important to understand the set up of a colonoscopy. You lay on your side and the doctors and nurses and nurses are behind you with the screen projecting what the scope is seeing in front of them… also known as in front of my face. But I’m knocked out, “conscious sedation” they call it. Until I’m not. I have 3 thoughts as I wake up…
- “So this is what it feels like having a scope in my intestines.”
- I hear the word “mass” being discussed amongst the doctor and nurses, “Aww bummer.”
- As I look at the screen in front of my face and see the tumor taking over my colon “Oh dear, that’s cancer.”
Then I’m somehow back asleep. When I wake up I laugh and tell the nurse about how I woke up and saw the mass but it must have been a weird dream. She’s very guarded in her response and just tells me that I should wait for the Doctor who will go over all the results with me. I was concerned that she didn’t laugh with me and dismiss it. “Oh shoot. It was true then,” I think. When the doctor does come in he’s also guarded, “Surprisingly, we found a mass. Based on the size and appearance I’m 99% sure it’s cancer. ” “Oh.”
I know that the only reason I believed him and was able to process what he said is because I had woken up and seen it with my own eyes. It’s beyond crazy that I woke up and beyond crazy that I remember it since one of the side effects of conscious sedation is amnesia. I’d say that’s a lot of coincidences to not be specifically designed for my benefit.
What’s even more strange is my disordinate amount of peace. How on earth do people who don’t know Jesus and believe that He can bring good out of even the most grueling situation and circumstances get through it!? I am actively choosing not to let my mind wander to “what-ifs” and places where fear rules the day. I am staying present and only taking on what I need to take on today.
I get a CT scan tomorrow to make sure I don’t have more tumors and in 3 days I meet with a colo-rectal specialist. Then I will have a lot of my questions answered as far as recovery times, surgery recommendations and treatment.
I know this was long winded but it’s a lot to take in, a lot to process, and a lot of backstory. But this is only the beginning.