Colon Cancer Brings Out the Fighter in Helen Taylor

photo of Helen Taylor

Helen Taylor refuses to let colon cancer knock her out. After receiving the diagnosis more than 3 years ago, the Mansfield, Mass., kickboxer prepared for the fight of her life. And she's been winning.

"I had a choice to lie down and let it do its thing or fight it," says Taylor, who was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 46. "I want to see my kids grow up, so I decided to fight."

Young, healthy, and active, Taylor first became concerned about her health in the fall of 2004, after the bleeding she and her primary care physician attributed to hemorrhoids failed to subside. Sensing something wasn't right with her body, Taylor returned to the doctor about a month later, armed with information about colon cancer, and requested a referral for a colonoscopy.

She's glad she pushed the issue. The procedure found a malignant tumor.

"I was totally sick to my stomach," says Taylor, who was shocked to hear she had Stage I colon cancer. "Time stood still."

Her initial thoughts of dying were only magnified by fear of the unknown.

'Oh my God, now what? What do you do now?' she thought as she drove home from work, crying all the way.

Girding for Another Fight

In January 2005, the tumor and about a foot of her colon were removed with no further treatment scheduled. Taylor thought she was in the clear.

"I went on my merry way thinking everything was wonderful," she says.

But by June, a complication from the operation sent her back to the hospital for emergency surgery. A few months later, Taylor experienced unusual bloating that led her to a different doctor, who ordered a CAT scan. A tumor was found on her liver, along with spots on her ovaries and abdomen.

"All of my friends and everybody went into a state of shock," she says.

Shock soon turned to panic as doctors described the malignancy as inoperable and treatment as long and difficult. The cancer usually wins, suggested one surgeon. But the fighter in Taylor refused to succumb.

At Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Taylor underwent 6 months of intense chemotherapy, including hospital sessions every 2 weeks and take-home infusion packs. During the grueling process, she experienced many ups and downs.

"Some days, it would have been so easy to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself, but I made myself get up and be active," she says. "On some days I felt so weak that it was tough just taking a simple walk around the block, but I made sure I got out there and did it. I didn't want to let my family and friends see me as a 'sick' person. I knew I had to push myself if I was going to have any chance at beating the cancer."

Taylor also began getting regular injections of Avastin (bevacizumab), a targeted therapy that has been shown to help colon cancer patients live longer. After completing chemotherapy, doctors added Xeloda (capecitabine), a relatively new chemotherapy drug taken in pill form, to Taylor's treatment.

"I was just determined [to live]," says Taylor, who feels stronger and stronger every day despite still taking both drugs. "My thought wasn't whether the tumor would shrink but how much did it shrink."

Taylor visualized herself kicking the tumor into submission; sometimes she imagined a Pac-Man eating it. She also stayed vigilant about exercising -- running, teaching a kickboxing class each week and earning a black belt in Tai Kwon Do. She continued working full time as a classified operations support manager for a newspaper and taught a high school color guard.

The tumor shrank to half its size.

'Too Much to Live For'

I refused to look at it as a death sentence. I have too much to live for, and I'm just going to keep fighting.

Helen Taylor

"I refused to look at it as a death sentence," says the wife and mother of 2 teenage sons, Christopher, 17 and Matthew, 14. "I have too much to live for, and I'm just going to keep fighting."

Taylor also attributes her good outcome to prayer.

"I believe in God, and I believe that He's given me the strength to fight this," says Taylor, who said a St. Jude prayer each night, attended church regularly and went to shrine before every CAT scan.

She also had "incredible support of a great family and awesome friends" who endured the emotional and physical toll of treatment along with her.

Taylor's kickboxing group prepared and delivered hot meals after each treatment and her coworkers crafted a basket filled with books, knitting needles and yarn, DVDs, foot warmers, hand lotions, games, and lots of cards with words of support.

"It was a great help and would bring a smile to my face each day," says Taylor, who opened an item each day with her husband Joseph.

With her cancer now stable and a promising prognosis, Taylor recalls the lessons she has learned while fighting the toughest fight of her life.

"It makes me more appreciative in ways that are hard to explain," she says. "I'm thrilled to spend the night at home with my husband and kids or go to my sons' football games or track meets. It's beyond enjoyable; you just treasure it more."

And the former "worry wart" no longer agonizes over small matters. Instead, she dismisses little things and focuses on the all of the positive reasons she has to be grateful. Even the painful neuropathy (tingling, burning, and numbness) that plagues her hands and feet 24/7 does not interfere with her happiness.

"I just blow it off and thank God I'm still alive," she says.

In addition to being alive, Taylor feels grateful to have a story that helps other people. She belongs to survivor support groups and email networks that help others battle cancer.

"If I can help one person, I will be thrilled," says Taylor, now 50, whose story of survival has appeared in local newspapers.

"The hardest part was the uncertainty – not knowing if you're going to live or die," says Taylor, who says she's not ready to die.

"For some people, it's the 'why me.' That never hit me because 'why anybody?' During Christmas, which is my favorite, I find myself thinking if this going to be my last; but I snap myself out of it because next season is not guaranteed to anybody. I just have a little bit of a tougher fight than most people.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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