Advanced Colorectal Survivor

Survivor points to proper adherence as key to survival

Pam Seijo is a Stage III colorectal cancer survivor who faithfully adheres to her long-term treatment schedule, but she doesn’t let it slow down her life. She spent 17 years as an elementary school teacher and now spends her time walking, crafting and advocating for cancer research and screenings—something that provides her with immense satisfaction. Pam and her husband have two grown children.

 

About 14 years ago my colon ruptured, which led to the discovery of an aggressive Stage III rectal cancer. I had been ill and experiencing pain for several months, so I was actually relieved to hear the diagnosis; it confirmed the feeling in my heart that I had cancer.

I have a fighting spirit, so I was eager to start treatment. I first had surgery to repair my ruptured colon and was then given a temporary colostomy. Following a 16-day hospital stay and some additional at-home recovery, I was ready to begin six weeks of treatment with medication and radiation therapy: I received fluorouracil (5FU) continuously, leucovorin (Fusilev) daily and 34 radiation treatments.

Unfortunately, after all that my tumor didn’t shrink. In fact, it grew and spread to my uterus, ovaries and coccyx. After several surgeons told me my cancer was inoperable, I finally found one who agreed to operate. In addition to removing the tumor, the surgery also included a complete hysterectomy, a proctectomy with colo-anal anastomosis, bladder repositioning and a permanent colostomy.

After I healed, I began taking irinotecan (Camptosar), but after 18 months, my body was struggling with the side effects. I experienced nausea, diarrhea, hand-foot syndrome and fatigue, and I had to rely heavily on help from my husband, parents, other family members and friends to get by. My oncologist stopped administering the drug and gave me a few months off for my body to recover.

During that time, a scan revealed microscopic nodes in my lungs, too small to biopsy. As a team, my doctors and I decided to pursue a low-dose, long-term treatment with capecitabine (Xeloda). For about the first month on a two-weeks-on, one-week-off cycle, I took 1,500 mg in the morning and another 1,500 mg in the evening. My daily dosage slowly decreased over the years, and I’m now taking 2,250 mg per day, on a one-week-on, one-week-off cycle. I do, however, take breaks from the medication for one week every four months and continuously from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Physically, I do well with my long-term treatments, but that’s not to say I’m totally free from side effects. I still experience fatigue and difficulty with my short-term memory, and I have neuropathy in my hands and feet. But I’ve learned to make slight modifications to my lifestyle to compensate for these issues: I get weekly massages for the neuropathy, implement techniques I used as a teacher to help with my memory loss and tolerate the fatigue by pushing myself, which makes me feel better.

In addition to my ongoing chemotherapy regimen, I also maintain a fairly steady checkup and testing schedule. I get a colonoscopy once every two years, a CT scan and a PET scan every other year, and a blood test every three months, which includes a CEA test. I also visit my doctor every three months.

Because I’ve always been a structured and organized person, I’ve never found it difficult to adhere to my long-term treatment schedule. But even if I weren’t innately organized, I would’ve figured it out because I know that sticking to my treatment schedule is what I need to do to survive. I keep two calendars with everything on them and mark off events and actions after they pass. I also have my medication schedule recorded in my phone with alarms set to remind me when to take my pills.

So far, my cancer isn’t showing any signs of active growth, and despite the ongoing chemotherapy and some discomfort, I’m determined to live my life fully. On chemo weeks, I don’t plan as much; but on off weeks, I do everything I want to do. I’ve developed a strong passion for advocating for and supporting Fight Colorectal Cancer through attending conferences, meetings and events. I also talk with colorectal cancer patients at local oncology centers and others across the country.

I always knew I was a strong, independent person who loved life, but I never knew to what depth. I’m thankful every day for my life and for what I can do for others going through this journey.

 

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