February 24, 2017
What I learned as a stage IV colorectal cancer survivor
BY Darrell Sawyer
My journey to MD Anderson began in November 2012, when I came down with what I thought was a 24-hour stomach flu. My doctor referred me to a gastrointestinal specialist, who prescribed a probiotic.
When my upset stomach still hadn’t gone away a month later, he scheduled a colonoscopy. That’s when he discovered a tumor in my intestines so large that he couldn’t complete the procedure. A CT scan confirmed the presence of a tumor in my colon, as well as lesions on my liver. I had stage IV sigmoid adenocarcinoma – colorectal cancer.
I was devastated. I wondered how many days or weeks I had left. I also worried about getting everything in order for my wife. But a relative had been treated for cancer successfully at MD Anderson, so my family insisted that I request an appointment there right away. I’m so glad I did.
Finding comfort in colorectal cancer treatment at MD Anderson
I was still struggling with my late-stage diagnosis when I met Miguel Rodriguez-Bigas, M.D., at MD Anderson. I told him I regretted not having a colonoscopy earlier. He reassured me, saying, “We’re not here to worry about the past. We’re going to work on improving your health now.”
I was concerned about travelling between Tucson, Arizona, and Houston for treatments and wanted to continue working as long as I could. My medical team worked together to make a treatment plan that would best address my needs. Along the way, I had numerous CT scans, MRIs, PET scans and other tests. Knowing that my care team was so thorough was a real comfort to me.
‘Centers of excellence’ in both Texas and Arizona
Eventually, Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas surgically removed about eight inches of my large intestine, and Thomas Aloia, M.D. removed several liver lesions. I also had a follow-up procedure called a portal vein embolization to shrink the part of my liver that still had lesions on it and force the other side to grow larger. Then I had another surgery to remove 60% of the affected part of my liver.
Afterward, I received chemotherapy at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona, which is north of Tucson. My care team in Houston worked with Tomislav Dragovich, M.D., at the Banner location, which had just opened the previous September.
This all worked out very well for me, as I discovered that MD Anderson is a center of excellence in both Texas and Arizona. The physicians and staff genuinely care about people. They have a system that works, and they give you hope. With the exception of my immediate family, I have never felt so loved as I did by the people of MD Anderson, ranging from my doctors and nurse practitioners to the staff and administrative assistants. All provided excellent care and guidance.
My colorectal cancer treatment side effects
While my experience at MD Anderson was exceptional, colorectal cancer treatment hasn’t been easy on me. My eyesight is a little worse now, and I have minor ongoing neuropathy in my feet and the tips of my fingers. I also lost about 25 pounds and suffer from chemobrain.
Throughout this journey, the effects of cancer have been softened by my faith, family, friends, former coworkers, therapy dog and even prayers offered by complete strangers. Without all of this support, I honestly don’t know how I would have made it this far.
My advice for other patients
Today, I advise others to seek the best care possible by going to MD Anderson. And don’t be afraid to ask “stupid” questions. All of my doctors drew pictures for me and explained each procedure.
I also tell people to avoid negative articles and information about their diagnosis or treatment that they might see on the internet. For many cancers, the survival rate is much better and higher than it used to be – especially if you’re getting treated at MD Anderson, which is making great advances in treating cancer through research conducted in its labs.
Finally, I tell people to stay positive by surrounding themselves with positive people. My mottos were “Trust in God” and “N.E.G.U.” (Never Ever Give Up). Find your own way to keep moving forward. It’s worth the effort.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Find your own way to keep moving forward.