Thursday, September 25, 2008

Symptoms of Colon Cancer

I realized in reviewing my past posts that I did not go into detail about what my specific symptoms were and what led me to the doctor finally. The different nurses who take care of me during chemo who tend to be about my age all want to know. I guess I have put myself out there in the world for all to read about so I should provide more information in case my experience will help someone.

Colon cancer is very subtle and insidious. Never in a million years did I think I needed to be concerned about it. I have been diligent about mammograms because my Mom had breast cancer. I have kept check on my blood pressure and cholesterol because my Dad died of a heart attack at a young age. I go to the dentist. I have had skin checks with a dermatologist. I get my eyes checked because I had a Grandma with glaucoma. My diet was healthy. Kaley and I could eat whole crowns of broccoli each. I would eat an entire head of romaine lettuce for my lunch salad. We had reduced our red meat consumption over the years dramatically and replaced it with salmon, halibut, crab and mussels. Red wine and dark chocolate had become staples. I did not think waiting until I turned 55 was too late for my first colonoscopy and even without symptoms, I was planning to schedule it for this year.

So what happened? I do not know for certain. About 10 or 12 years ago, I had some bleeding. It concerned me enough to see the doctor about it. Kaley with her large head in utero had given me nice hemorrhoids. Given my age, gender, and healthy status, the doctor told me not to worry. The bleeding seemed insignificant after that to me and in fact happened very infrequently. I brushed it off as hemorrhoids but now looking back, I think it was the beginning of the tumor in my colon. The tumor, by the way, if it is even there anymore, was not that far up so bleeding from hemorrhoids or from the tumor would be difficult to distinguish.

I have to preface all of this with the fact that I have had bowel issues my entire life. Never have I been regular. Constipation and diarrhea have been with me my whole life. I remember my Dad saying when I was a little girl that Mom needed to feed me more "roughage." I can still hear him saying this. Too bad they did not have Activia back in the day. The question about "change in bowel habits" has always left me mystified. For me, it all depended on what I ate or if I was on a trip or nervous about an arbitration hearing. This particular question was meaningless for my circumstances.

As I entered my 50's, menopausal symptoms begin to appear or so I thought. One of the biggest complaints women have is gas. I noticed that certain foods that had never bothered me before began to affect me. Three years ago, I had my last latte with milk. After drinking a latte in the car on the road to Montana, I developed an old fashioned stomach ache. I decided I had become somewhat lactose intolerant and began avoiding dairy products. I noticed after our wine tasting parties, the cheeses would upset my stomach the next day. Obviously, I attributed all of this to my age. Also, I started to notice I could not eat as many fiber foods like lettuce and peppers and green beans. My cupboard eventually contained Beano, lactose intolerance pills and pepto bismol. Hot and spicy foods slowly started to bother my intestines. Never did I have heartburn but rather mid-abdomen gas pains.

Amidst all of our bathroom remodeling which began one year ago, I had stomach aches. I blamed them on the fact that I did not have free use and access to my bathrooms until the end of the day when the contractors would leave. And again, given my age and pre-menopausal status, I assumed the gasiness and pains were all a normal though annoying part of the aging woman's life.

Then in February, things got worse. We took a road trip to Spokane for Dave's sister's 60th birthday party. In the car, on the way, we stopped for lunch and picked up a couple of BBQ sandwiches and hot Tim's Cascade Jalapeno potato chips. By the time we got to Spokane, I was having some nice stomach issues--mid-abdominal pain. I was not passing gas; it was all trapped. I did not complain and by the next morning, I was much better. By biggest concern was that no longer could I eat spicy BBQ or Jalapeno chips along with not eating lettuce or milk products. The rest of February and March, I wasn't feeling well along with getting stomach aches now and then. In early April, we drove to Walla Walla to see Kaley in a performance, and again being in the car caused stomach pains and trapped gas. I decided I had developed diverticulosis or diverticulitis which happens during menopause. Dave's sister had a severe case of diverticulitis which required part of her bowel to be removed. My symptoms were not nearly as bad as hers but were similar.

My plan was that this was my colonoscopy year so I made an appointment with my doctor to discuss my stomach problems and get my routine colonoscopy scheduled. In mid April, I had my doctor's appointment. She felt my stomach and without me mentioning my thoughts, she diagnosed diverticulosis pending the colonoscopy. Given my gender, age and healthy status, colon cancer never entered her mind nor mine. Our trip to Chile took up a good share of of May so my "routine" colonoscopy took place on June 9th.

The tumor found in my colon was large and probably all of my problems were due to the fact that foods could not push past it easily and gas and indigestion backed up above it causing my stomach aches. Bleeding was not a huge part of any of the recent signs. I never had a full blown intestinal blockage though at the time of my diagnosis, I was very close--hence the colon stent. Breathing problems and asthma developed because the tumors in my liver were pushing up on my lungs and everything together was making me feel pretty crummy during April and May.

I cannot emphasize enough how slow and subtle the symptoms were. All of them were easily attributed to getting older or becoming menopausal. Simply watch TV and you realize that about 80% of people my age have gas, irregularity, indigestion, constipation and diarrhea and there are a whole host of over the counter medications to deal with it all. Actually, I am not sure what is normal and what is not.

But for me, the signs and symptoms were definitely not a normal part of aging but instead were indiciations of a serious spreading and potentially fatal illness.