Riley "Cancer Does Not Have You"

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On January 26, 2015 I went into the ER for pain in my abdomen and I wasn’t eating or drinking. I was seventeen weeks pregnant with my daughter at this time, and I had even gotten to the point that I wasn’t peeing anymore and when I did, it was so bright orange and only twice a day IF I forced myself. I thought I was extremely dehydrated, so I went to go get fluids and called it a day. I left work that Monday and told everyone where I was going and said I would just see them Tuesday. When I got to the doctor’s, they did an ultrasound on the area I told them that was hurting, and they saw something strange like a mass. They were also confused as to why they couldn’t even get urine from me even putting in a catheter. The doctor came back in and told me that I had what appeared to be a twisted ovary or a cyst, but that they can fix it laparoscopically. They said that it’ll be about forty five minutes long, but not fixing it would cause more harm to myself and the baby than if we didn’t do anything. My boyfriend and father of my our baby was deployed at the time so I sent him a message to tell him what was going on and that I would message him after everything was done. I called my parents and they met me at the hospital and waited for me to be taken back. When I woke up, my mom was at my bedside crying and I found out it had been five hours since I had gone into the operating room; much longer than the forty five minutes that had said it would take. The doctor said that they still didn’t know what it was, they just assumed it was an infection that they removed most of, but not all, as some of it was still left in my abdomen. I was told that antibiotics would get rid of that no problem.

Fast forward five days to January 31, 2015. My doctor told me I had cancer, asked me if I had any questions, then he got up and left as I stared back at him in shock. I was transferred from where I live in Florida, to Lubbock, Texas since I was pregnant and diagnosed with colon cancer; they didn’t know what to do with me in my small town.  While in Texas, they said they couldn’t do any type of scans because of the pregnancy, so instead they did a chest x-ray and ultrasounds on my organs to see if it had spread. All those tests came back negative (thank goodness!) My new oncologist came into the room to tell me that she had spoken with the surgeon and with the way he described everything it sounded to be stage IV but she was going to a tumor board later that week on Friday to discuss the case, so she would come by afterwards to tell me what they had come up with. That was the longest four days of my life. I had a breakdown and just started crying the day before because I just wanted to go home but I was stuck in that hospital, still in too much pain to walk anywhere worth walking to. Finally, Friday came up and the high risk OBs came in the room first to tell me it WAS determined I’m stage IV and that they can get me through the pregnancy; but that my boyfriend James was going to have to prepare to be a single dad because they don’t know how long I’d have after the baby is here. The oncologist eventually came in to talk to me and told me that we could start treatment, but that they don’t know which treatment is best because of the pregnancy (I didn’t need radiation, so that was why we discussed treatment while being pregnant).


They explained termination options to me, but also assured me that they had treated patients while pregnant before. I asked if terminating would give me a higher chance of living or change my treatment at all, and the answer to both of those questions were “No”. So I said, “If I am meant to have it, God will get us through this together” and chose to go ahead with treatment. From there I was sent to MD Anderson in Houston for another opinion since I was pregnant, and it was seemingly a dead end because the oncologist there didn’t have a clear answer either. I chose to go with FOLFOX chemotherapy because my tumor tested MSI high so 5FU alone wouldn’t do anything to my tumors. I came back home and waited to get my port placed at the end of February 2015 and in March we started chemo. I did four rounds of chemo, then had two seizures due to eclampsia I had developed. I was taken to the ER by my boyfriend James, and my brother, which is where both the seizures happened. I was transported to another ER because the one in this town doesn’t handle pregnant women. The ER I was transferred to then called for the helicopter to be lifted to Lubbock, TX and I naturally delivered my daughter the next day.

We were in the hospital for five days due to my daughter having jaundice for a couple days and to monitor my blood pressure. I had about a month and a half and during that time we went back to MD Anderson to get my first CT scan done and to discuss the next step. After seeing the results of my scan, my oncologist decided to change my chemo to a stronger one, so that the tumors will shrink fairly quickly because there was a surgery and procedure done there that could raise my chances of beating this significantly. The regimen was called FOLFOXIRI; oxaliplatin, irinotecan, leucovorin, 5FU and avastin. My oncologist warned me that it was a very toxic chemo and that I will likely have a lot of side effects, but due to my age I shouldn’t have an issue recovering. I started that new chemo and the first infusion wasn’t too bad, I had some nausea, but it was easily controlled by the medication, but I was so tired and dizzy.  Every treatment after that just got worse and worse and I was more and more sick after each time. I was in bed for over a week, I couldn’t take care of my daughter unless my boyfriend had to go on a trip for work or was flying that day/night. I would just lay on my living room floor with my daughter and change her diaper and feed her when needed. I could barely get up to throw away her diapers. I couldn’t take my anti-nausea meds when I was alone with her because they would make me sleep and I didn’t want to be asleep and unable to wake up if she woke up before I did from a nap. I had to stop that chemo for about a month and a half because I was in and out of the hospital with gallstones and pancreatitis. We were trying to get back to Houston to get the big surgery done and remove my gallbladder in the process, so we didn’t want a surgery before a surgery, especially done out in my town. We went to MD Anderson again and they determined by the scans that I needed to do four more rounds of chemo because one of my tumors was so close to a blood vessel they didn’t want to chance anything going wrong. We came back home and started that chemo again and I was so sure I was going to lose my hair (I didn’t though!). After finishing my chemo on January 22, 2016, we were getting my next procedure scheduled in Houston to see if I was a candidate for the HIPEC procedure. We went to Houston to get the laparoscopic procedure done and they determined I was a good match for it (praise the Lord!) and I expected to have to go back that next month for the surgery. It turned out it was only two weeks after that!


We had to plan to be in Houston for a month and get our daughter in daycare since my parents were going to watch her but they both work full -time and it was stressful. We got out to Houston for the big surgery with everyone there for this; my parents, daughter, boyfriend, and one of my close friends came out. I was in surgery for eight hours. They removed the cancer, appendix, ovaries, uterus, gallbladder, omentum and more of my large intestine, reversed the colostomy, gave me a temporary ileostomy and did the HIPEC procedure. Recovery was very difficult. Surprisingly I was only in the hospital for a week and not the anticipated two weeks. I was discharged to go home after a week of being in a hotel, so we were home two weeks earlier! The ten hour drive home was not easy though. It took me about six to eight weeks to heal to the point of walking more than fifteen steps without having to stop to catch my breath. It took awhile for me to be able to go anywhere without having to stop for a break after a few minutes because it was painful to walk still. Once I was finally feeling better, my boyfriend James whom became my husband April of this year (2018), had to deploy again, so he left and the following month I had my ileostomy reversal and my parents and daughter were with me for this one. Everything went great and I was out of the hospital sooner than anticipated again. Since then, I was getting CT scans every three months until February 2018 and now I have been moved to CT scan every four months until February 2019, then to every six months until I hit five years in remission; then it’ll be yearly checks.

Today, I am now working as a mental health therapist for an agency in New Mexico, remotely from my home in Florida. I am also a Licensed Master of Social Work in the state of New Mexico and working on my clinical license here in Florida, for social work. I spend my spare time volunteering with the local Relay for Life, and speaking at different cancer related events. I have traveled to different states to learn how to be a better advocate in various seminars specific to colorectal cancer and have even gone to Washington D.C. this past March to lobby at the Capitol to ask for representatives to vote “yes” on bills that will provide increased funding and better care for cancer research and cancer patient care. I was featured, along with other survivors and caregivers in a magazine called “On the Rise” telling everyone’s story that was affected by colorectal cancer under the age of fifty. This has become a passion of mine and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. I hate when someone new is diagnosed, but thankful I have gone through all I have so I can provide the support I wish I had when I was first diagnosed. Almost everyone would say that being diagnosed with stage four colon cancer at the age of twenty four and at seventeen weeks pregnant is one of the worst things that could happen to you, but if I’m being completely honest, it is actually one of the best things that has ever happened to me! I have met so many amazing people that I KNOW would not have happened had I not been diagnosed. I learned so much about my strength and resiliency and I know that what I thought was my “limit” before on what I could handle, was only scratching the surface.


My daughter is three now and perfectly happy and healthy. She has had no complications due to me having chemo or the first surgery while I was pregnant or me having eclampsia and seizures before I delivered her. She is so full of life and energy, it is addicting! She comes with me to all my appointments for my CT scans and blood work and is so comfortable in hospitals and loves the doctors and nurses. She has no idea the strong young lady she already is, even prior to being born! She makes me beyond proud, I just can’t even put it into words! I have a lot of last side effects from chemo such as numbness in the tips of my toes and sometimes my hands, cold sensitivity, fatigue, dizzy spells at times, gastritis, and vision changes; and she reminds me that I have endured much worse and so has she. Unfortunately, being diagnosed under the recommended screening age of fifty (which was recently changed to fortyfive) is not that rare. It is happening more and more often and there isn’t an answer yet as to why this is happening. With the rate of those diagnosed under the age of fifty rising, I know people will need support and I highly recommend if you have Facebook, finding a support group on there and connecting with those in similar shoes. This goes for any situation, not just colorectal cancer, by the way. Know that it is normal to be sad and depressed when a grim diagnosis is given, and have yourself a little pity party as I call them but do not stay there! Pick yourself back up, turn that sadness into anger, get mad and channel all that anger into fighting that beast!! Remember that YOU have cancer, cancer does NOT have you.