11 May Surviving Cancer | Colleen Taylor
Colleen Taylor is an officer with the Santa Ana Police Department in Santa Ana, California.
The first time I was diagnosed with cancer I was 29 years old and, like most people that age, I thought I was bullet proof. I went to my doctor to have her check a small lump in my breast, which she quickly assessed as inconsequential. She then asked me how long I had had the lump at the base of my throat. I asked, “What lump?” My doctor sent me to another doctor within the hour for a biopsy. The test was not definitive and surgery seemed like nothing more than a precaution. I wasn’t aware it was cancer until I woke up after surgery. They removed my thyroid, treated me with radiation, and within a few weeks I was back at work. I was told it wasn’t likely to reoccur and once again I was bullet proof. I had beaten cancer.
I was 40 years old and working as a field training officer when I noticed an odd pain in my abdomen. When it did not go away, I saw my doctor and was told it might be a urinary infection. I didn’t believe it. We know our bodies and as much as I wished it were something simple like that; I just knew deep down there was something in there that did not belong there. I returned to the doctor and had an ultrasound performed which showed an abnormal mass in my belly. They thought the tumor was attached to my ovary and scheduled me for a hysterectomy. When the surgeon went in, she quickly figured out that it was not at all what they first thought. The tumor was attached to the small intestine and was determined to be a rare sarcoma called a gastrointestinal stromal tumor or “GIST”. Neither the doctor nor I were prepared for a bowel surgery. She sewed me up and then referred me to the cancer center at UCIMC.
It was going to be two weeks until I had my surgery date at UCI to re-sect the tumor. In the meantime I felt worse and worse. Murphy’s law was in full effect. My previous gyn surgeon was on vacation in Canada and my new surgeon at UCI was in Hawaii that week. Soon I quit eating and drinking and the pain in my abdomen became so intense I could not stand up. Paramedics took me to the ER at UCI and I was admitted for surgery when a CT scan found an abscess had developed on my large intestine. Luckily for me, my surgeon returned from Hawaii the day after I was admitted to the hospital. He removed the tumor, a few feet of small intestine and a section of large intestine along with one ovary. I vaguely remember the doctor saying that there was a remote possibility that I could wake up with a colostomy, although it didn’t seem likely.
When I woke up I had an incredibly long vertical incision in my abdomen, which could not be sewn up due to the infection in the gut. About an inch from the incision was the thing I dreaded most, a colostomy. After surgery, I was still quite ill from the infection and had tubes coming out of places I hadn’t even imagined. After a couple days they attached a wound vac to the incision. That was a nifty little invention I had never heard of but it also presented challenges, painful ones. I was up and walking as much as I could each day. I pushed myself to walk more each time I got up but felt like I was getting weaker instead of stronger. At that point it had been eight or nine days since I had anything to eat. My gastrointestinal system was still not awake and working. I was dehydrated and suffering from the lack of nutrition.
After blowing a few dozen IV’s, they put in a PICC line and began giving me some nutrition through that. I slowly began winning the fight to get stronger. After two full weeks of no food or liquids by mouth, the gut finally woke up and began processing again. By that time I had lost 25 pounds. Under normal circumstances, I would be delighted to take off a few pounds, but when you don’t eat you can lose a great deal of muscle mass. Once my gastrointestinal system was working again, I offered my doctor $500 for a bowl of chicken soup! On the 16th day I was sent home with a portable wound vac and the dreaded colostomy. Dealing with the bag in the beginning was probably my biggest morale buster. It took a while to get the hang of it. (No pun intended)
It’s helpful when you search for what is right rather than what is wrong. I eventually realized how fortunate I was that we have the medical technology we have. Not that many years ago people didn’t survive that kind of infection. Five years ago (at the time) there were no treatments to fight GIST other than surgery. As I got used to it, the bag and the wound vac were just a part of me and I learned to work with them. After a couple of months my wound had healed enough to get rid of the wound vac. It had left me with a really impressive scar. After a few months I was able to have the colostomy reversed and have the enormous scar reduced to about half the previous width. I joked with my surgeon that my battle scars had killed my dreams of being a swimsuit model. The last surgery produced another scare when my surgeon found what he thought was 3 more small tumors. The initial tests showed malignancy but, thankfully, the final test results we received two weeks later proved them to be benign.
Throughout the second hospital stay I had issues that I was too ill to fully address. I was fortunate to have advocates looking out for me and insisting on certain things when it came to my healthcare. No one should have to go through that fight alone. If I could give advice, I would implore family members or friends of those who are hospitalized to look out for their loved ones best interests and ask lots of questions. Don’t take “I don’t know” for an answer and don’t just defer to the “white coat” if something seems off. If you are the one diagnosed with cancer, please do your research so you can ask intelligent questions and seek second opinions. Be an active participant in your healthcare. There are some truly great medical professionals out there, but some are better than others.
I cannot stress how much it helped that I had such a wonderful support system. My family, friends, and law enforcement family went above and beyond to sustain me throughout my illness and recovery. As a police officer I was use to being independent, in control, and the problem solver. I suddenly found myself having to ask for help for some of the most basic things. At 40 years old, I never thought I would have to ask for help to bathe or wash my hair. At the time I thought I had lost all dignity. You certainly lose any sense of modesty when several strangers poke and prod you all over each day. My captain was at the hospital on the day of my big surgery and assured me and my family that the department was behind me. He made himself available to us if we needed anything. His genuine concern made a lasting impression on me and my family.
When I got home from the hospital I was told that there was a sign up list at work to bring me meals 3 times a week. My friends, as well as coworkers I did not know very well, brought meals and lifted my spirits. At first I felt funny about taking the help (still stubbornly trying to be independent). Holly was the first person from work to bring a meal. She patiently explained to me (through my thick skull) that I was doing them a favor by letting them do that for me. She told me that people genuinely want to help during tough times like that but don’t know how. Bringing food was their way of being able to help me get better. I didn’t feel so self-conscious about accepting help after Holly’s talk. I desperately wanted to return to work before I ran out of time on the books. I found out that my doctor was even more stubborn than I. No amount of coaxing, pleading, or bribing would get him to move up my last surgery date. The personnel sergeant informed me that when I ran out of time off and took time off without pay I would also lose my benefits. Having medical bills, in six digits, I could not risk losing my insurance and once again had to turn to my law enforcement family to help me get by until I could return to light duty. And once again I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the people in my department in the form of donated vacation time.
The type of cancer I had was one that many oncologists have only read about. Traditional chemotherapies don’t work on a GIST tumor, nor does radiation. Only recently (within the last decade) have there been new drugs that have any effect on GIST. I was blessed that the tumor appeared to be localized. The danger lay in its size and mitotic count. I am fortunate to be able to take medication that will hopefully keep me in remission. I returned to full duty and a couple months later joined the SWAT team as a tactical negotiator. After 4 years, I am thankfully still in remission and the side effects are tolerable.
Cancer changes the way in which you view the world. I am no longer bullet proof but I’m also not afraid to die. The one guarantee we all have in this life is that we will die someday. We must focus on how we live and what we choose to do with the time we are given. Find your faith and work each day to remain positive! Carpe diem.