Colon and Rectal Survivor

Survivor’s family history didn’t define her fight

Mary Ellen Fleming-Jones overcame a long family history when she beat colon cancer. She is a retired U.S. Food and Drug Administration chemist and has two adult daughters. When she’s not driving patients to their cancer treatments through Cancer Action or talking to people over the phone through the R.A. Bloch Cancer Foundation’s Hotline, Mary Ellen enjoys feeding birds and attending live theater shows, movies and concerts as well as fishing, reading and playing brain games.

 

I come from a “cancer family.” I have had grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides who have battled various types of cancer. My father was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1978 and lymphoma in 1980. Two years later, my mother also was diagnosed with colon cancer, and then in 1988 my brother found out he had melanoma. Many of them lost their fights.

When I was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer in March 1993 at the age of 52, I was determined to work toward a different result. That determination paid off. I survived and began a new, more optimistic chapter in my family’s history. My sister and her daughter have since beaten breast cancer and two of my cousins have conquered melanoma. While we may still be a cancer family, we are now also a family of survivors.

A gastroenterologist first discovered my cancer during a colonoscopy and endoscopy. I went in for the procedures because of frequent stomach pain, which I originally suspected to be from an ulcer. When I found out the true cause, I reacted rather nonchalantly because the doctor said the mass was very small. A couple of weeks later – at the urging of my youngest daughter – I made an appointment with a surgeon to have it removed.

After my surgery, the surgeon told me the tumor actually was the size of his fist—much larger than originally thought. He also told me that the tumor had broken through my bowel wall, that my appendix was malignant and that 23 of the 27 lymph nodes he tested were positive for cancer. At that point, my family history flashed before me and it felt like my world was crashing down.

An oncologist came to my hospital room soon after to set up a consultation for six weeks later. At that appointment she helped me enroll in a clinical trial. I soon found out that I was chosen to be in the control group of the trial rather than in the study group, so I didn’t receive the newest medication. Instead, I received 30 cycles of the chemotherapy drugs leucovorin (Wellcovorin) and fluorouracil (5-FU). I was disappointed at first, but ultimately the treatment worked and that’s all that really matters in the end.

Physically, my therapy was a breeze compared to what I’ve seen others experience. I did feel fatigued and I lost 46 pounds due to a combination of diarrhea and loss of appetite, but overall the physical effects were minimal. Emotionally, I still have to work at not making every health issue I have a symptom of my cancer. Luckily, I’m not alone in that struggle. I believe that no one should have to carry a burden alone. Thankfully, my friends and family members do, too, so they all were a great source of support for me during my treatment and for a long time after. I also attended support group sessions, which were incredibly important to my recovery.

Now that I’m a long-term survivor, I do what I can to help others. I volunteer with the Bloch Cancer Hotline and Cancer Action, talking to current cancer patients over the phone and while driving them to their appointments. I think it helps them to hear advice and receive support from a cancer survivor like me, but I also get a lot of continued support from them by observing how they cope and thrive. I truly believe that I’m actually getting more than I’m giving through my involvement with these organizations.

My best advice for those newly diagnosed is to find a doctor who specializes in your particular type of cancer with whom you can communicate freely and trust. If you don’t feel a connection with the first doctor, seek out a second opinion. This philosophy wasn’t as prevalent when I was diagnosed, but through my volunteer efforts, I find myself encouraging people who are having difficulty communicating with their doctors or accepting a diagnosis or treatment scheme to search for a second opinion. A doctor’s attitude can greatly influence a patient’s handling of side effects and, ultimately, the outcome of the treatment.

 

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