Rectal Cancer Survivor Looks on the Positive SideMar 27, 2012
Hospital volunteer Inge Scott, 56, tells patients in the chemotherapy infusion center at University of California, Irvine Medical Center, “Take one day at a time; always look on the positive side; and never give up.” Scott knows what she’s talking about. In December, 2010, she was diagnosed with rectal cancer that had spread to her liver.
Signs and symptoms
Scott says she first noticed something was wrong on a day in the spring of 2010. She had a history of hemorrhoids, and hoped the bleeding and urgent need to use the bathroom she experienced was just a one-time flare up. But over the next few months, the bleeding became more frequent and the bathroom urgency continued. By the end of September, Scott’s symptoms had worsened, so she made a doctor’s appointment.
The doctor examined Scott and agreed she had external hemorrhoids and referred her to a surgeon. The surgeon’s first available appointment for a consultation was in January, 2011, more than 3 months away, and Scott resigned herself to waiting.
Ready to fight
By early December, Scott’s energy level had dropped so low, she was having trouble performing her job working with disabled adults. In addition, almost every night in bed, she had severe leg cramps. When she woke up one morning in late December, she was short of breath and her legs felt so heavy she could barely walk. Her husband, John, took her to the emergency room at UC Irvine.
The next few days were a blur of tests: x-rays, EKG, blood work, and Scott’s first-ever colonoscopy. The American Cancer Society recommends adults start screening tests for colon and rectal cancer (colonoscopy is one option) at age 50, or earlier for those at higher-than-average risk. Scott was aware of this, but she had put if off because she didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford the procedure. A few hours after the colonoscopy, a doctor told Scott she had rectal cancer.
Scott said getting the news she had cancer was shocking, but she didn’t feel scared. Scott said, “Even though my family was crying, I wasn’t. I said, ‘How are we going to fight this?’” She knew she could rely on the support of John and their son, James. After 4 more days of tests, doctor visits, and waiting rooms, Scott learned the cancer had spread to her liver. But she was still determined to remain positive. She opted for the most aggressive treatment.
Surgery, chemo, and radiation
Scott underwent surgery to remove the tumor from the tip of her liver. Once she recovered, she began 2 cycles of chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments. The treatments were so successful that doctors did not have to remove her colon and rectum, as they had feared. But the radiation destroyed her sphincter muscles, making normal bowel movements impossible. She needed another operation to get a permanent colostomy, where the end of her colon was attached to a hole in her abdomen to allow wastes out of the body. The wastes collect in a colostomy bag, which she empties regularly.
Scott said the colostomy bag makes her life better, because it allows her to leave the house and do things on her own. But she can’t do as much as she’d like. Side effects from the chemotherapy left her with neuropathy (nerve damage) in her lower legs, and she needs a walker to get around.
Just 2 weeks after her colostomy operation, Scott began volunteering at the hospital where she was treated. Officially, her job is to get snacks and drinks for people in the infusion center. But she feels her real job is to tell her story and give patients hope.
Scott said, “We tell funny stories and talk about their families. We talk about anything they want.”
Before her diagnosis, Scott said she was eating a poor diet that contained a lot of processed foods. She said she had digestive problems – diarrhea and constipation – her whole adult life. But after her diagnosis, she began eating a vegan diet and says she feels better and has more energy. In the old days, a quick meal may have been just popcorn. But these days, Scott is likely to blend kale, baby spinach, frozen berries, avocado, banana, and some water into a smoothie.
Scott said she has always been a positive person, but these days she’s become more easygoing about things like a messy house. “The old Inge used to worry about things,” she says. “Now I’ve prioritized what’s a big deal and what isn’t a big deal.”
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