Colorectal Cancer Survivor

Positive attitude essential in overcoming multiple challenges

Rochelle Joseph is an inspirational survivor of stage III colorectal cancer. Diagnosed at the age of 26, she endured difficult surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, and maintained a positive attitude through it all — in part to encourage others.

Rochelle is the principal of RMJ Consultants and assists clients with urban planning in the Washington, DC area. She is also a committed advocate for fellow cancer patients and is the Maryland State Coordinator for Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC). Rochelle and her husband, Jaymar, live in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, and have a daughter.


Fake it until you make it. That’s a popular saying, but I did a lot of it during my treatment and recovery. I wanted to be upbeat and have a positive attitude initially so my family wouldn’t worry — but as time went on, focusing on the end goal and not on the momentary difficulties played a big part in my recovery. I knew from the beginning that my mental state was as important as my physical state in my journey.

Being diagnosed unexpectedly with colorectal cancer when you are 26 and subsequently undergoing a number of surgeries and aggressive chemotherapy are all enormous challenges. It is an understatement to say that it was a complete shock when I was diagnosed in 1999. I did not fit any of the risk factors and was fairly ignorant about the disease.

Prior to my diagnosis, I was fighting chronic diarrhea and thought it must be my diet so I restricted what I ate until I was only eating a single can of soup a day. I was traveling with my new job and when I visited my family after two months, my mother was very concerned and insisted that I see my dad’s gastroenterologist.

The doctor wanted me to have a colonoscopy immediately, and right away he found the tumor. Things moved quickly and I met with an oncologist and a radiation oncologist to devise a treatment plan: six weeks of radiation simultaneously with six weeks of chemotherapy in order to shrink the tumor.

In December 1999, the surgeon performed a partial colectomy, removing the tumor and nine lymph nodes — six of which tested positive. I also had a temporary colostomy bag while I healed from the surgery. The cancer was stage III due to the lymph node involvement, and additional chemotherapy was required. I had no idea of the severity that would be involved. My doctors wanted to start the adjuvant chemotherapy right away. Because I was young, they told me they were going to “throw the kitchen sink” at me. I thought I was ready.

The regimen consisted of 5-fluorouracil (5-FU) and irinotecan (Camptosar) once a week, delivered through my medi-port. I had never been so sick in all my life. For the first six weeks, it was a 90-minute infusion, and 20 minutes into the treatment, I would already be throwing up. After six weeks, the doctor decided to continue with the 5-FU alone for the next seven months and life improved.

Nothing prepared me for how my body was going to react to chemotherapy and over time there was a cumulative effect of the chemotherapy that included fatigue, nausea and even depression -— because I was sick and tired of feeling so poorly. I knew, however, that each doctor who worked with me had the overall goal to extend my life the greatest amount possible.

I don’t believe that I allowed anyone to see my down side. To be perfectly honest, I had some moments of prayer and begging with God, but I did that behind closed doors. My family and friends were trying their best to be supportive — and I didn’t think they could deal with it if they saw me in pain. I needed to stay positive or I would dig a hole for myself.

I gradually gained back my strength and health during the months after the chemotherapy. From the time I finished my treatment until I was five years out, I did not have any additional medication and only had regular blood tests. When I finally reached the five-year mark, my oncologist told me I didn’t need to come back to see him but would need to see my primary care doctor for monitoring and also have periodic colonoscopies -— which I do faithfully. He almost had to shove me out the door, but I went to my car and finally cried my eyes out with relief. That was the first time that I thought this might be over.

I feel very blessed to have conquered cancer and couldn’t have done it without my faith, my family and my husband (fiancé at the time). My cancer diagnosis in itself was the most eye-opening moment in my life. I look at life through a clearer lens now and I appreciate the important things like family, so much more.


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