Libby Dunn was a shy college student who didn’t want to tell anyone about the blood in her stool. When she finally admitted it to her mother, she insisted Libby see a doctor. Libby was embarrassed but told the doctor about her symptoms. He sent her to a gastroenterologist but he couldn’t even complete a sigmoidoscopy because of a blockage. A few weeks later, Libby had a colonoscopy and her doctor found a tumor.
Libby scheduled surgery, had tests and scans, met with her professors and quickly finished up the semester. Over her Christmas break, doctors removed the tumor and part of her colon. Libby was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer at 23.
Libby went back to school during her chemotherapy but cut her class schedule in half. There were many times she was so tired that she didn’t know how she would keep going but somehow was able to finish college only one semester behind her classmates. Libby says that her degree is one of her biggest accomplishments, and now she feels that she can do anything.
One of the hardest things for Libby was discussing her symptoms, but now she knows there are much worse things than saying the words “rectal bleeding” out loud. She wants people to know that no matter how embarrassed you are, the symptoms of colorectal cancer are too important to ignore.
Libby’s story as told by Libby
In November of 2005 I was living in an apartment by myself, working close to 40 hours a week and was a full time student trying to get my BA from California State University of Monterey Bay. I had always had what I called a sensitive stomach. While visiting my parents one weekend I told my mom that I had seen blood in my stool. My mom was very concerned and took me to the walk-in medical clinic. The Physician’s Assistant’s last name was Colon, how ironic. He asked me about my symptoms and suggested that I make an appointment with the gastroenterologist. I made an appointment for a sigmoidoscopy and then went back to my busy schedule.
A couple of weeks later I met with the GI to have my sigmoidoscopy, however he could not complete the procedure. He suggested that I make an appointment for a colonoscopy. It was now getting closer to the holidays and my colonoscopy would have to wait until after Thanksgiving. Once again I went back to work and school, however my symptoms were getting worse, and I was physically uncomfortable all the time.
I came home to stay with my parents for two nights to do the prep and have the colonoscopy. On November 29, 2005, my mom took me to the hospital to have the procedure. When we arrived I was told that my appointment had been canceled. There was no way that I had done all of the prep for nothing. The receptionist said that the doctor would do my procedure after he had seen all his other patients. Finally, at 6pm, I was being taken in for my colonoscopy; I was the last patient in the hospital. When the procedure was completed the nurses quietly wheeled me out of the procedure room and into the all enclosed recovery room, the room I now know they take you when it is bad news. The doctor asked for my mom to come in and then he started telling us about the tumor he found. I was partially drugged and confused about what he was saying. He said he could tell by looking at the large bleeding tumor what it was. It was not until the doctor left and the nurse used the word “cancer” and said she would pray for me that reality struck me. It was then that I began to panic and cry. Cancer? What was I going to do? I was 23 years old. I had to go back to work the next day. It was the end of the semester, I had finals coming up. My boyfriend and I were supposed to be celebrating our two year anniversary. My life completely changed at that very moment.
The following day my mom called the restaurant I was working for and told them that I would not be coming in for my shift and suggested that the manager take me off the schedule indefinitely. That same day I sent emails to my professors and explained the situation and asked that I have a chance to complete any unfinished work and be able to pass my classes.
On December 1, 2005, my parents and I met with the best surgeon in Santa Cruz. He confirmed the diagnosis. I had stage III colon cancer and the tumor needed to be removed soon. Surgery was set for December 12. I spent the next 10 days in and out of doctor’s offices; I had chest x-rays and lower abdomen CT scans, blood work, and a barium enema. And if that was not enough I also had meetings with my professors, finished final projects, and moved some of my belongings from my apartment back into my parent’s house. I also spent these days making many phone calls to tell my closest friends the worst news possible. Seeing friends and family after they heard the news was extremely hard; everyone would cry when they saw me.
On December 12, 2005, I had my colectomy surgery. The doctors removed the tumor and sixteen lymph nodes and they did an intestinal resection. My epidural failed and I was in excruciating pain the first night; however the following morning an incredible anesthesiologist came to my rescue and redid my epidural. I spent six nights in the hospital and had wonderful care the entire time. My family took turns staying the night with me and we even celebrated my sister’s 27th birthday in my hospital room.
I was released on December 18th and I had one week to recover before my family’s annual Christmas dinner. I was able to get a little Christmas shopping done, help decorate the tree, and I was feeling well enough to enjoy Christmas dinner.
I felt normal again and I had even gone out for a couple of hours on New Year’s Eve. However, January 9, 2006 was back to reality. My parents and I had our first appointment with my oncologist. I left the office in tears. Between January 9th and my first chemo treatment on February 27, 2006, I met with an oncologist at Stanford hospital who reassured my family and I that staying in Santa Cruz, my hometown, for my chemotherapy was the best choice. This oncologist also recommended that because of my age I should meet with a fertility specialist. Seeing a fertility specialist was very important to me. I wanted to make sure that my treatments would not jeopardize my chance of having children in the future. The fertility doctor recommended that I freeze eggs as a back up plan. My oncologist agreed that this was a great plan and that I had time to spare before I started chemotherapy. I spent about a week giving myself shots of ovary stimulating drugs to produce numerous healthy eggs and then when there were enough eggs I had an egg retrieval procedure in which they retrieved twenty eggs and froze all twenty of them. It was very successful.
Before starting chemotherapy my surgeon and oncologist both agreed that I should have a portocatheter placed in my chest to administer the chemotherapy. It was an out patient procedure and it was one of the best decisions I made, as it was very convenient during my treatments. I also decided that I would continue with school, but I would only take half the classes I was originally planning on taking. Then I would only be one semester behind in school and would be able to stay with my graduating class.
I did six months of chemotherapy. My original regimen was FOLFOX which was administered through a pump with a continuous drip that I wore for 48 hours at a time every other week. During my seventh treatment I unexpectedly had an allergic reaction to the oxaliplatin and went into anaphylactic shock. I was rushed to the emergency room where I recovered quickly; it gave everyone quite a scare. I now needed a new regimen, because my body could not take any more oxaliplatin. I would continue with just the 5FU and leucovorin once a week.
During six months of chemotherapy there were many difficult times. There were times I did not know how I would continue. My family and my boyfriend made it possible for me to continue to go to every appointment and my mom would drive me to school every week, which made it possible to complete two classes. Finally after a total of sixteen treatments, when I was extremely sick and weak, I went in for my seventeenth treatment on August 22, 2006 and my oncologist told me that my body had had enough. No more treatments. It was the best feeling I have ever had. I was elated.
I graduated from university in May of 2007, which is one of my biggest accomplishments. Cancer changed my life, but it did not stop my life. I have participated in American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life as a survivor in 2006 and as the Survivor chair on the committee in 2007. I look forward to participating in the fight against cancer and helping educate others specifically about colon cancer and how easy it is to prevent it with the correct screenings.