Christina Johnson - Age is not a factor
In 2018, I was working as a bartender in Jackson, Mississippi preparing to relocate to Austin, Texas with my partner. Two weeks before moving I started experiencing diarrhea. As humans this happens from time to time and at first, I thought nothing of it. As the move approached, I thought that maybe it was nerves or stress.
After a month of diarrhea in Austin and not having insurance I was relieved to learn about MAP Insurance (Medical Access Program) which allowed me to see a physician. Given my age (32) the doctor’s first thought it was a gluten allergy or perhaps I was lactose intolerant, but all the tests came back normal. When blood started appearing in the diarrhea, I gave over 10 samples of stool and once again all tests came back normal. I started losing weight and feeling weak, going to the bathroom more frequently. I was too ill to explore my new city and working a shift looked like spending most of my time in the bathroom.
Desperate for answers, I would call the doctor every day I wasn’t working to see if she had any cancelations. She would take more blood and stool samples and repeatedly the tests would come back normal. I found myself at the Emergency Room explaining my symptoms and being anally examined with still no answers. I was told that I might have Crohn's disease, or several other things and that cancer was very unlikely because of my age and family history. I started to feel like the doctors weren’t taking me seriously.
Returning to the MAP physician every chance I could, she had no answers and her frustration started to build. She made me feel like my symptoms weren’t real and eventually had me see another doctor. Five months after all this back and forth and my symptoms getting worse, a CT-scan was ordered for my lower abdomen. It took another month before it was approved by MAP. I was now going to the bathroom 15 times in a day with blood present most of the time. While waiting a week for the results of my CT-scan, I received a letter in the mail stating that my stool sample came back negative for Colon Cancer. Feeling relieved I called family to announce that I still didn’t have answers but that at least I didn’t have Cancer. Sadly, the results from the CT-scan showed a mass in my lower colon, upper rectum area, and I was told that if I was still experiencing blood in my stool that I should go to the Emergency Room immediately.
Panic set in, I called my family (aunt and uncle) and they booked flights right away. My partner and I went straight to the ER. They did a colonoscopy and it was then that I was diagnosed with stage II Colorectal Cancer, on November 28th, 2018. There are no words to express the fear that comes over you when you hear the words “You have Cancer”, and there is no way you can prepare yourself of the fight against it. Radiation and Chemo pills were the first of the battles. I had to do 28 rounds of radiation causing me to be extremely fatigue, sleeping most of my days away, depressed and overwhelmed with emotions. Chemo pills causing me to be nauseous and a handful of other medication to help with the side effects. About three weeks into radiation, expecting to start my menstrual cycle, I asked the doctor how this would affect radiation. He responded that my cycle would stop. I left his office eager to be home in bed, not realizing the information I had just received. I called my partner on my way home and told her what the doctor had said, her response was is it temporary or permanent? In this moment I realized I wasn’t sure. I called the doctor to ask and was told it was permanent. We often hear about people fighting cancer, but we never stop and think about how cancer fights back. Cancer had taken my choice to bear children.
Towards the end of radiation, I was in extreme pain, hardly able to sit from the burns and skin irritation. Once I finished radiation, I had to wait six weeks for my body to recover enough for surgery. In those six weeks still trying to process how much my life has changed and trying to prepare for the next battles.
March 4th, 2019, I had surgery, eight inches of my colon, my tumor and my ovaries were all removed. Because my ovaries were no longer functioning and often in female’s colorectal cancer likes to come back and hide itself in the ovaries, my doctors thought it was best to go ahead and remove them. I had a chemo port, where I would later receive chemo through an IV, put in my chest. Going into surgery I was told that I was going to have to have a colostomy bag and that they weren’t sure if it was going to be temporary or permanent. I remember this being the first thing I asked when waking up from surgery. Nothing short of a miracle, I did not have to have one at all. Completely exhausted mentally and physically, I would have to wait another six weeks before starting a more intense round of chemo. Surgery had removed the disease and the second round of chemo was to better my odds of it not coming back.
I had ten sessions of chemo, where I would have to go every two weeks and sit for four hours watching the chemo slowly drip through an IV, making me sick to my stomach and alone with my thoughts. After four hours in a room full of others also fighting for their lives, I was sent home with a fanny pack that held a ball of chemo that would continue to release medicine into my body for the next two days. Having to sleep and shower with this contraption connected to me, I found myself in a very dark place mentally. I would return to the doctor after the two days and the IV would be removed and another two weeks would pass, and the process would start again. The idea that this intense chemo was to better my odds of the cancer not returning, left a fear that it’s possible that it could.
With my ovaries being removed I was now going through menopause and experiencing hot flashes and night sweats. After finishing my last round of chemo feeling relieved and ready for things to get back to normal, I had the realization that I would have a new normal. My life would be forever changed. My doctor told me at the end of this journey that in order to fight cancer you must lose something whether it’s an organ, a function, or your mind. And these words couldn’t be truer.
As a survivor of cancer, I want the world to know that cancer does not discriminate and how important it is to know your body and to be your own advocate. That cancer doesn’t always fit the stereotypes that have been built by our society. Chemo caused my hair to thin, but I was far from bald. Breast and ovarian cancer are not the only cancer that women face, and age is not a factor. Colorectal Cancer is on the rise in young people and in its early stages can be treated. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer, know that your journey will not be easy, it will be life changing, but you are not alone.