Health Fair: Vail Valley survivor stories
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado “-Six years ago Debbie Monica of Eagle was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was only 38 years old.
She had already watched the disease claim her father’s life. At the time, Monica’s two children were in elementary school and she had been living with intense abdominal pain for months. Following her diagnosis, she underwent surgery and aggressive weekly chemotherapy sessions that lasted for six months.
But now, six years later, Monica makes a startling statement about her battle with cancer.
“It made me a stronger person. I’m grateful it happened. But I definitely don’t want to do it again,” says Monica.
Mallie Kingston, 54, of Gypsum doesn’t share that sentiment, but she notes her battle with cancer has made her an advocate for herself and her health. During the past five years, she was first diagnosed with breast cancer and then last year, she learned she had colon cancer. Her colon surgery and chemotherapy are now completed and her prognosis is good.
Both women feel extremely lucky to have survived colon cancer. They should. While it is easily treated in its early stages, colon cancer is seldom discovered early. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the United States.
And, despite what people may think, colon cancer is equally likely to strike men or women.
When Kingston was diagnosed with colon cancer last year, she sought out Monica to learn what was ahead. While she had already undergone surgery and chemo for her breast cancer, Kingston knew every treatment presents different challenges.
The two women started talking and started laughing. Colon cancer is serious stuff, but both Kingston and Monica are known for their humor and infectious laughter. Their friendship is forged by a battle that can be lonely.
“Colon cancer is not something people want to talk about,” says Monica. “When I say to people I have had cancer, they say ‘Breast cancer?’ and I say, ‘No, 50-year-old man cancer.'”
Monica recalls one day in the chemo treatment room when a worker came in and said it was free massage day for breast cancer patients. As a colon cancer patient, she didn’t qualify.
Having survived both, Kingston agrees that breast cancer has a more aggressive awareness program than colon cancer. But, in fact, colon cancer is a more lethal form of the disease. In the U.S. colon cancer is the fourth most common form of the disease and the second-most deadly.
“I feel I got breast cancer so I would be watching more carefully for colon cancer,” says Kingston.
In her case, the presence of blood in her stools was the warning sign. Monica lived with intense abdominal pain for months, figuring because of her young age, the problem signaled a gynecological issue or maybe irritated bowel syndrome.
“People die by not getting diagnosed,” says Monica. “If I hadn’t had my tumor removed, six months later I would have been dead.”
“It’s important for people to know they should have screenings,” says Kingston. “I am grateful to be alive and I think they have made huge strides.”
Both Kingston and Monica undergo regular colonoscopies and they urge their friends and neighbors to do the same. They pointed to the upcoming 9Health Fair as another early detection opportunity, with new take-home colon cancer screening kits being offered. The new kits are easier to use and more accurate than the previously offered kits.
As they talk about their cancer experiences, Monica and Kingston express some reticence. Living in a small community, both recognize that people are aware of their health issues. But, at the same time, neither wants be defined by the disease they share.
“I don’t want to be the cancer woman,” says Kingston. However, she believes talking about her experience may help others.
Monica talks about how she believes her cancer prepared her to be there for others, including Kingston.
As the two women part after meeting this week, Monica offers a bit of advice and encouragement.
“Chemo is brutal on your body and it takes a year to get that out of your system,” she says. “But there is a day, about two years after you are finished with it, that you realize you didn’t even think about your cancer all day long.”
Kingston is looking forward to that day, and to being alive to enjoy it.