Contributed by Jaylee Thomas, Survivor
I remember sitting in a booth across from my husband at a neighborhood restaurant. It was November 9, 2013 — our first wedding anniversary. But I wasn't feeling particularly pumped about it. I was worried because I was lying on a hospital bed a few days earlier with a camera up my rear.
I was only 32 years old, but a scary experience had led me to the hospital for a colonoscopy. I was feeling gassy, and when I passed it, something just didn’t feel right. To be safe, I went to the hospital. But I couldn't shake the fright. The colonoscopy results took two weeks, and the whole time I worried whether I had cancer. The days seemed to run together.
I'm not sure what it's like for others, but when the doctor called to tell me I had cancer, it felt like everything changed in an instant. Like I'd just been granted membership to a club that I didn't want to be a part of — the cancer club.
My thoughts started to race. I wondered if I'd lose my hair. I wondered if I would survive. Would I have chemotherapy? Would it make me puke? And why me? I’m the type of person who doesn’t look before I cross the street. Surely I was more likely to get hit by a bus than get cancer. Plus, I had just found out I was pregnant.
My mind was spinning.
It was a Thursday night when I received the news over the phone. I was home alone, and there wasn't much I could do. An appointment with the cancer agency couldn’t be scheduled until the following week. The wait was excruciating.
The world was moving forward, but I was frozen, faced with a puzzling array of questions. Time slowed down like it does in the movies, when the character stands dazed on the corner of a busy street, with the crowd rushing by in a blur. That's how I felt.
Unfortunately, because I was sick and my pregnancy was so early, I couldn't continue with it. Plus, the stress and treatment made the prospect of getting pregnant in the future fade away. I did freeze some embryos through the IVF process, but they weren't viable. To this day, I'm not sure if I've adequately dealt with that part of the journey.
Healing is messy
I had the usual treatment -- surgery, followed by recovery, then 12 rounds of chemotherapy. It was hard and messy, but I survived. I beat cancer, and I was ready to get moving with life again. Except, shortly after chemo ended, the nerve damage and night sweats started. Plus, the emotions surrounding what I had just gone through finally showed up. I didn't have any idea what to do with them or how to process them. It was as if I'd just realized I had been sick.
I was struggling, and I felt alone.
When I look back on my experience with cancer, I think my brain did me a solid. It was like, “You know what … this is a lot to deal with. We're gonna pause the emotions, for now, so you can focus on what's in front of you.”
I honestly don't think I could have handled the diagnosis, treatment, and pregnancy loss if it came with all the feelings I had expected to feel. I shut down emotionally because that's what I needed to do.
I know it was hard on my family. Back then, I didn't understand what it felt like to love someone with cancer. Now I know. It's terrifying.
Healing takes time, and it's packed full of ups and downs. I realize I'm not saying anything you don't already know, but it never hurts to hear it again. Figuring out what works for you takes time. Learning what you need takes time. Your journey is valid no matter what route you take.
For me, I learned how to connect with my feelings and the sensations in my body. I learned how to notice my thoughts, and I discovered how to breathe again. I found my voice. With that, I unearthed the happiness that comes with the energy. I wish I could bottle it up and share it because I'm so freaking lucky to be here with you.
You’re never too young
When I was diagnosed, I didn't know anyone else with colon cancer — or even cancer in general. But now, seven years later, I've seen it touch so many.
It feels like everywhere you turn, young people are facing this disease. The data show it’s not just perception. The incidence rate of young-onset colorectal cancer is increasing about 2% every year. To say someone can be too young for colorectal cancer is just not true anymore. The face of this disease has changed, and it's happening to more and more young people worldwide.
The experience of finding out you have cancer can vary, and it can be difficult to get the answer you need.
When you're younger, you have to advocate harder to be taken seriously while others find themselves wondering how they didn't notice sooner. The one thing I hear from most young patients is they were told they were too young for cancer. But it's not the case anymore, and it's something we urgently need to rethink.
One other thing:
Will you do me a solid, please? Get screened for colorectal cancer. It can make all of the difference.
Jaylee is a Lucia N.03 Light facilitator and pilates teacher who works with people to help them see how incredible and capable they are both mentally and physically. You can follow her on Instagram at @ThingsCancerMadeMeSay.
Get to know Colorectal Cancer Alliance volunteer Nancy Pope and consider being a service to the community yourself.
Don Shippey was 55 years old in 2016 when he decided he’d been putting off his colonoscopy long enough.
Though facing a colorectal cancer (CRC) diagnosis isn’t easy, Chris continues to show up with grace and courage as he moves through his journey to wellness.