Miles to minutes: Rebecca’s fight with colorectal cancer

“How can such a little machine be so psychologically disruptive?”, Rebecca wondered.

The portable chemotherapy machine’s constant whirring was inescapable as the simultaneously lifesaving and cell-killing drugs pumped into her veins.

Just a few months earlier, Rebecca was diagnosed with Stage III colorectal cancer. She was 46 years old – several years younger than the standard screening age for colorectal cancer – and was in seemingly good health. Rebecca worked full time as a nurse, ate healthy, enjoyed traveling and had run a couple of half marathons.

The symptoms of her cancer were subtle. Kidney and back pain on her left side, occasional blood in her stool, fatigue.

“I felt like a wimp,” Rebecca said. “My doctor at the time had gone through breast and stomach cancer, and here I was complaining about this minor pain.”

She was referred to Dr. Douglas Kuperman, a Sarasota gastroenterologist at Florida Digestive Health Specialists, for a colonoscopy.

“It’s always devastating to discover a tumor in such a young woman that is otherwise healthy,” said Dr. Kuperman. “I had to give her the bad news, but also tried to encourage her that we may have caught this early enough that removal and subsequent treatment would give her the best chance for a cure.”

Like many colorectal cancer patients, Rebecca didn’t have a family history of cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 1 in 21 men and 1 in 23 women in the United States will develop colorectal cancer during their lifetime. It is estimated that approximately 150,000 people will be diagnosed in 2021.

“Colorectal cancer is particularly scary because it can show up with little to know no warning,” said Dr. Kuperman. “Asymptomatic patients are not uncommon and it’s crucial that people understand even the smallest warning signs – like blood in stool or fatigue.”

Soon after her diagnosis, Rebecca underwent bowel surgery to eliminate the tumor and the surrounding area where cancer cells were likely lurking. Six months of chemotherapy followed, where a machine hooked up to Rebecca’s chest port would drip mechanically in 48-hour intervals.

The medication wracked Rebecca’s body as it killed any remaining cancer, along with the healthy cells.

“I was sad” said Rebecca. “I was mad at my body. I felt like it let me down. I was disappointed.”

Surrounded by her spouse and family, she fought the nausea, exhaustion, diarrhea and weight loss in a way many runners tackle the race stretching out in front of them – in intervals. But instead of miles, Rebecca was fighting to get through minutes.

“It’s a little block of time,” she thought. “If I get through this much, I can go to the next one.”

Half a year later, Rebecca finished chemo treatment and was declared cancer-free. Since her diagnosis, her spouse and seven siblings opted to receive colonoscopies. She also makes sure the people around her know the symptoms of colorectal cancer.

“There’s a stigma (around colonoscopies) but I think it’s vitally important,” she said. “Sometimes I think they don’t go because they’re scared of what they’ll find out. But don’t be afraid – it’s not that bad and it could save your life.”

Eight years after beating cancer, Rebecca is enjoying life…without running. Chemotherapy-induced neuropathy (damage to her nerve endings) still plagues her feet, but she doesn’t miss it. Instead, she turns to more meditative forms of physical activity like yoga and long walks.

“Yes, I survived colon cancer but that doesn’t define me. I’m not a victim,” said Rebecca. “I’m a nurse, I’m a wife, I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m a friend. I have a fantastic life.”