Angie LaRoche's story
Her message: "Don't be afraid to speak up"
A routine physical in 2007 proved to be the turning point that would change my life forever. I mentioned that I was having more diarrhea than I thought was normal, but I really wasn’t concerned. "I just feel like there’s something off in my body," I told my doctor at OHSU. Blood work showed I was anemic. Thinking colitis was the culprit, my doctor ordered a colonoscopy. Cancer wasn’t even a concern — I was under 50, no family history.
They were almost finished with the colonoscopy procedure, and the nurse put his hand on my arm and said, "I’m sorry." That’s all I remember until I woke up in recovery. The team couldn’t get the scope past the tumor they discovered it was so big. Colon cancer. Stage IV. Spread to the liver. People die of old age in my family. I always took it for granted that I would, too. I went along thinking and hoping cancer could never happen to me, and when it did, it was such a blow.
Successful surgery was three days later. Surgeons Brett Sheppard, M.D., and Daniel Herzig, M.D., were my team, and I don’t know how I was so lucky to have my care placed in their hands. Stage IV is a huge thing to swallow — it took me a long time to even say it. But they gave me hope; they never put a timeline on my life. Rounding out the team were a host of nurses, physician assistants and genetic counselors — all there for me. Wonderful caretakers.
Seven weeks after surgery, I began 12 rounds of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy was one of the scariest things I have ever faced. Reading all the possible side effects and not knowing which ones I would have to experience were frightening. I decided to seek out help from a cancer naturopath. It was a turning point in my treatment.
The naturopath encouraged healthy eating to help me through chemo. He had me on a daily protein shake plus special vitamins and supplements that helped protect my digestive system from some of the side effects. He encouraged me to walk every day, and soon I worked myself up to walking over four miles every day. The adrenaline and energy boost I got from walking cannot be explained in words; with every mile I got stronger in body and spirit. If you are going through treatment, I would encourage you to talk to your doctor about how diet and exercise can positively affect you.
Looking back prior to my diagnosis, I realize now that the changes to my body that I thought were part of aging (diarrhea, gas pains, narrow stools) were something I should not have ignored; they were not normal. For several years I dismissed these symptoms as irritable bowel syndrome; they somehow became a regular, accepted part of my life. Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed and scared to talk to my doctor about it, which could have cost me my life. So if you have symptoms, including any changes in your bowel habits, don’t be afraid to speak up and get tested via a colonoscopy. It could save your life.
Michelle Barnes' story
Specialists work together to save the day
Michelle Barnes was a bit more than 20 weeks pregnant when she noticed blood in her stool. At just 29 years old, colon cancer was the last thing on her mind, but she mentioned the blood to her doctor and was referred for a diagnostic colonoscopy near her Medford home. The doctors didn’t look far before they found a tumor “the size of a golf ball,” Barnes says.
Surgery was the next step. Because Barnes was pregnant, her doctors referred her to OHSU. After a repeat colonoscopy, she was hospitalized and taken for a colectomy the next day. Her team included colorectal surgeon Daniel Herzig, M.D., high-risk prenatal specialist Leonardo Pereira, M.D., M.C.R., and an obstetrical anesthesia specialist. “The prenatal team did ultrasound and talked with me about the risks,” Barnes says. “They told me I could go into labor during surgery, but everything just went perfectly. Thank goodness, because my daughter was young enough that she probably wouldn’t have survived.”
To reach Barnes' colon, the surgical team had to keep her pregnant uterus out of the way. “Someone had to hold it during surgery, which lasted a couple of hours,” Barnes says. Fortunately, Barnes’ cancer was stage I and had not progressed beyond the colon wall. Dr. Herzig was able to remove the section of colon with the tumor and use an end-to-end anastomosis to reconnect Barnes' colon and avoid a colostomy.
“I was pretty confident,” Barnes says. “The cancer was just something I had to have removed.” As for her nerve-wracking situation, she says, “everything happened so quickly I didn’t have time to process it. The OHSU staff was amazing, and I had terrific support from family and friends.” While at OHSU, she had extensive genetic testing, looking at 14 separate genes. All results were negative, so the origin of Barnes' colon cancer remains a mystery.
Although Barnes talked with the medical oncology team before surgery, she did not need chemotherapy because her cancer was stage I. For the next five years, she will have regular blood tests, colonoscopies and CT scans to make sure her cancer does not return. Four months after her cancer surgery, Barnes gave birth to a healthy daughter, delivering as planned at the community hospital in Ashland. “The pregnancy went well, and I feel pretty much back to normal,” she says. “If you need to have something serious done, OHSU is the place to go.”