I found myself in the ER desperately searching for answers to something I had been trying to pinpoint for multiple years.
My symptoms had first surfaced in 2014 when I was pregnant with my daughter. Initially, I had convinced myself that my symptoms were pregnancy related. Unfortunately, the symptoms continued even after my daughter was born. Nausea was a daily, unwelcomed visitor. Every few months, there was blood in my stool. The extreme fatigue was relentless, and I added dizziness to my growing list of concerns.
Visit after visit, my doctor never even considered cancer. I’m sure he thought there was no way a 30 year old woman could have colon cancer this young… (#NeverTooYoung). He gave me pills to help with the nausea (they didn’t help) and he had sent me for a blood test, which ultimately came back clear. While that gave me some sense of relief, I still knew something was wrong.
I kept pushing. It took severe bleeding the week of my wedding for me to get my butt into the ER. 3 days before my wedding, I was having a much-needed and long-awaited colonoscopy. The biopsy came back benign, but, unfortunately, my butt wasn’t.
Four months after my honeymoon, on January 5, 2017, my life changed forever. I traveled to the Cleveland Clinic to undergo a multi-step procedure to have my abnormal polyp removed. What was supposed to have been a 1-hour procedure turned into a 5-hour emergency colon resection. I woke up to having 8 inches of my colon removed and a long recovery ahead of me.
2 weeks after my surgery, at the young age of 31, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIc Sigmoid Colon Cancer – YEARS before I was due to even think about a colonoscopy.
As you can imagine, this didn’t make sense to me. My biopsy was clear. On top of that, I thought colon cancer was an “old man’s disease.” I was shocked. On the other hand, this diagnosis explained everything! Finally…Answers!!!
Out of nowhere, cancer chose me. I most certainly did not choose it. I was a new mom & newly married. Cancer didn’t care. I was facing the scariest of unknowns. I knew I would have to make hard decisions, take risks and choose positivity. I was fighting for my life. I had to survive.
My diagnosis made me wonder if I’d see my daughter grow up. I’ve had to purposefully push out thoughts that I might not make her kindergarten graduation. I focus on the quality of time I do have with her, making the most of our minutes.
4 weeks after my surgery, I was thrown into 6 months of chemotherapy. Every other week, I drove an hour to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh. My treatment alternated between 5-FU (5-Fluorouracil) and a FOLFOX chemo cocktail with Oxaliplatin (“Oxy”). These treatments also came with their fair share of negative side effects- some short-term that were unbearable, and some long-term that I will always have to deal with. Needless to say, these were not the kind of cocktails a girl gets excited about.
As difficult as chemo was, it truly was a blessing. It really did attack my cancer. Now, I see my oncologist every 3 months to check my CA-125 levels. I get a CT Scan every 6 months and I’m happy to announce that each scan has been clear.
Before we “cheers” to that, it doesn’t mean I’m out of the woods, and, as any cancer survivor will tell you, it certainly doesn’t mean my life will ever be “ordinary” again. Besides ongoing side effects, I also carry the BRCA1+ mutation, so I have a mammogram or breast MRI every 6 months, and next year I’ll have a double mastectomy. I’ve already had a proactive hysterectomy. In February 2019, I will have another CT scan, and then we move to annual scans- the first time there’s been a reduction in frequency since July 11, 2017 (my last chemo treatment).
But the biggest change for me has been in the way I view the purpose of my ordinary life- now extraordinary in my mission. I’m far from the only young person to get colon cancer- in fact, rates of diagnosis in people under 50 are on the rise, while over 50 rates are declining.
I’m not the only person with a story to tell. I’m not the only person known for being relentlessly positive in the face of stakes that were literally life or death. I’m not the only woman to get cancer “in spite of” being a wife or a mother.
I am, though, the only Tabitha Trent Cavanagh.
I am the most optimistic freakin’ person you’ll ever meet. I poop sunshine (well, now I do). I also make poop jokes, as you can see.
There’s something about my story, coming from me, that is the only way “someone” out there will take a look at themselves- a really close look- and second guess putting off a doctor’s visit.
I don’t care if it’s only ONE person who needs to hear it from ME- I’m making every effort to make sure they do.
I spent my whole time in treatment documenting the entire journey. Ups and downs, and my own insides-out. I took selfies with every generous person who accompanied me to chemo. I passed out pineapple lifesavers in the waiting room. I did my best to make others laugh during their treatments. I leaned into the sharing. Into accepting my story and embracing its purpose. Into supporting 10,000+ members of Blue Hope Nation, a patient and family support community through CCA (the Colorectal Cancer Alliance). Being a part of that community equipped me with the tools to face my diagnosis head on and gave me the hope I needed to navigate my journey to survivorship.
I even faced “scanxiety” with a positive outlook- no matter what the scans say “this time,” at least I can choose to say, “it is what it is, and whatever will be, will be.” Worst case scenario would be cancer again, and hey, I’ve beaten that before, so why wouldn’t I beat it again? I focused on the positive.
I’m lucky to have all these tests available and accessible. Lucky to have a support system. Lucky to have others to focus on, taking my attention away from the side effects for precious moments in which I knew my purpose, my ability to serve through sharing, was more important than time spent worrying.
I will say, it was a lot easier to stay positive thanks to finding something to make my nausea manageable- medicinal marijuana. It helped far more than any other kind of pill I was prescribed at the hospital. Before getting my card, I couldn’t even work all of last year because of how incredibly sick I was.
Cannabis is still the only thing that helps with the lingering neuropathy I have in my toes, feet, legs, and arms, so I can function during the day with help from a Sativa strain, and I can quiet the painful restlessness at night enough to get some sleep thanks to Indica strains. When I sleep, I’m more present and less cranky in the morning, which my husband and daughter surely appreciate. I am grateful for the cancer-fighting properties of cannabis, like CBG and Δ-9-THC. Yes, obviously, I did my homework. I’m a recruiter; research is in my nature, and so is open-mindedness. I’m thankful for that, too.
I researched a ton, not just so I would be able to live and tell my own fullest story, but to continue to help others. I listened to other people’s stories. I watched Sanjay Gupta’s documentaries. I sit on the Never Too Young advisory board for the CCA, which focuses on young-onset colon cancer like mine. Like 17-year old girls I’ve met. I want them to feel supported; to be confident and at peace.
I’m lucky. I have peace of mind, and so do my husband and daughter. The chemo and surgery gave that to us. The tumor is gone and the chemo targeted the cancer that had spread to 6 of my 16 lymph nodes. And I know my purpose.
I want to just encourage you to imagine the potential of yours.
If you’re in research and development, I’m talking to you. If there can’t be a cure yet, I’d love to see you learn and then tell the story of why there’s a rise in younger people diagnosed with colon cancer. I’d love to see you commit to studying the BRCA1+ mutation, and to identifying what other genetic mutations might be linked to higher risk (like Lynch syndrome, for example).
There have to be some. Cancer runs in my family. We know there are genetic links. Last year, my mom year Stage 1 melanoma. My grandfather has had 5 different kinds of cancer (and beat them all). My aunt has not had cancer, but is positive for BRCA1+. My mom had a cousin die of ovarian cancer in her mid-late 30s. Both of my grandmothers have had breast cancer. It’s everywhere in my gene pool. I want you to learn why.
If you’re a patient, what if yours is the story that gets someone brave enough to talk about bowel movements to their partner or to visit their doctor?
If you’re one of those people who has had clear scans but still feels horrible, or who hasn’t been taken seriously, or who hasn’t taken yourself seriously enough, start advocating for yourself. Know your body and listen to it when something is off. Nobody knows your body better than you do, and it’s your responsibility to share that body’s story with your doctor. Don’t let anyone dismiss you. Don’t give up. Don’t dismiss yourself, no matter how uncomfortable it is. Push for answers and don’t be afraid to get a second (or third) opinion!
I’ve gotten extremely comfortable talking about very uncomfortable things, like poop. Like uncomfortable poops. I use a hashtag, #aBetterPooMeansAbetterYou, and I mean it. I’m blessed to continue this story for a reason, and I think telling it is that reason. Advocating for others, and asking you to tell yours.
From the day my surgeon shared the heartbreaking news to the moment I rang (and broke) the chemo bell after completing my grueling chemotherapy treatment, I have never felt alone. Had it not been for the unending love of my family and the genuine support of the Blue Hope Nation Community, I am not sure I would be writing this letter to you today.
Joyful participation through my everyday battles was how I decided to beat colon cancer. When I chose to see my cancer diagnosis and journey as a blessing, the lens in which I viewed my new life had shifted. Changing how I saw this disease – and doing something about it – granted me the opportunity to witness my daughter’s future.
To my family, friends & the doctors and nurses who take care of me, who listen to me, who take me seriously, and to that someone out there reading this right now and giving my life that purpose I live for, thank you.
Thank you from the bottom of my butt.
To contact Tabitha for patient advocacy or other speaking opportunities, reach out to her on LinkedIn or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.