Breast Cancer Awareness, Day 23

Today’s personal cancer account is from Michelle who has posted here before.

My name is Michelle, and I’m a two-time cancer survivor.  Since April, I’ve been shaving my head — the chemotherapy I was on caused itching and sensitivity on my scalp.  This outward symbol of my fight has often prompted conversations with strangers, and I’m surprised at how many people assume that, because I’m a 30-something woman, I have breast cancer.

Usually, these conversations center around someone telling me about their mother/sister/aunt/friend/cousin that battled breast cancer, and that person’s story, and how the well-meaning stranger just knows I’ll beat it and be a survivor and…

Then, they see my blue bracelet on my wrist and stop, and look at me with a perplexed smile on their face.  Or, they ask how I was diagnosed, and I tell them I had a colonoscopy.  I’ve even had someone ask me where I had my reconstruction done, since “they” look so good.  *sigh*

These moments can (and often do) become a teaching moment.  I’ve become, whether I like it or not, a walking billboard for colon cancer.  I tell my new friend that I’m a colon cancer survivor, and more often than not, the reaction is confusion.

“But that doesn’t happen to women.”

“I didn’t know it could happen to someone so young.”

Colon cancer does not discriminate.  Traditionally, it’s diagnosed in people over the age of 50.  However, recently, there’s been an increase in the number of people diagnosed under the age of 50.  Matter of fact, the age group with the largest increase in diagnoses is 20-29 years old.

There is a lot of research currently taking place to try to determine reasons for this disturbing statistic.  I won’t use this forum to speculate on those reasons.  I will, however, provide you with a few things you can do to help lower your risk.  I’ll also provide you with some of the most common signs and symptoms, so that you are armed with what you need for early detection.

Consider your car: you put fuel into it, you get the oil changed, and you perform routine maintenance on it.  These steps are required to ensure that it will start when turn the key.  Your body requires the same upkeep — proper fuel, routine check-ups, etc.

It is a proven fact that cutting down your intake of red meat can decrease the potential of colon polyps, which are the pre-cursors to colon cancer.  I’m not asking you to never eat steak again.  Instead, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and increase your intake of whole grains.  Remember that the food you eat is fuel for your body.  If you don’t put the proper fuel into your body, it may not run as well as you’d like it to.

Exercise is a must — it’s not an option.  Our bodies are meant to be used; if we are sedentary because of our jobs, it is our responsibility to make sure that we carve out regular time to work out.  I’m not recommending that you go out tomorrow to run a marathon – but, start out by walking for 20-30 minutes daily.  Regular exercise increases your body’s ability to fend of disease, recover from illness, fight off germs, and increases your endorphins (those feel-good hormones).  It helps provide your body with the strength and endurance to fight and recover from the awful things that can (and, let’s be honest, will) happen to it.

Be aware of the signs of colon cancer.  Be aware of your body, and be strong enough to talk with your doctor if you have concerns.  Colon cancer is much easier to beat when it’s found in the earliest stages.  If you have blood in your stool, changes in your bowel movements, unexplained weight loss or gain, or you feel like you are not emptying your bowel after a movement, talk with your doctor.

Typical screening for colon cancer begins at 50, if you are asymptomatic and you have no family history of colon cancer.  However, if a first- or second-generation relative (parent, sibling, child, grandparent, etc.) has a history of colon cancer, you should start getting colonoscopies 10 years prior to that person’s diagnosis.  For example, I was originally diagnosed at the age of 31 — my children will need to start getting colonoscopies at the age of 21.

In addition to the above, you must also get screened if you have symptoms.  You may be able to explain away some blood on your stool, occasional diarrhea, constipation, or bloating…but, wouldn’t it be nice to know that what you’re experiencing is nothing more than a hemorroid, a reaction to your diet, or dehydration?  That peace of mind?  Yes — it’s worth it.  Believe me, it’s better than the alternative.

This month, the pink ribbon is everywhere.  We are all more conscious about breast self-exams, mammograms, and general awareness of this awful disease.  Please remember that you need to be aware of your body all year long, and to talk with your doctor if you have any questions.  If something doesn’t feel right, don’t blow it off.  In my case, talking about my concerns saved my life.  Because I had an uncomfortable conversation with my doctor, I’m here to raise my children.

And, for the record, while my fight isn’t over yet, I’m winning.  🙂  Michelle 2, Cancer 0.

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