Melanoma and colorectal cancer survivor: I’m glad I went to MD Anderson
Unless you’re a patient, or know a friend or relative who has it, I can’t imagine most people think too much about cancer — much less where they’d go if they got it. Why would you, if you didn’t absolutely have to? Before March 2015, I’d never been sick a day in my life, so I had no reason to think about cancer, either.
But when I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer— and then superficial spreading melanoma later that same year — I was really glad to be at MD Anderson. The expertise of its doctors is worth traveling for.
My colorectal cancer diagnosis
I live in a small town in Arkansas. So, when the blood I’d been seeing in my stool off and on for about a year started getting worse, my local doctor sent me to a gastroenterologist in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s the nearest big city to me, and it only takes about an hour and a half to get there.
The doctor in Memphis performed a colonoscopy and removed some tissue for a biopsy. When the results came back, he told me I had stage I rectal cancer.
The tumor was only about the size of a large marble, and located in my lower rectum, but the Memphis doctor said that removing the growth surgically was the best and only treatment option he could offer me. I was also told I’d need a permanent colostomy — or bag that collects stool outside the body through a hole in the abdomen — in order to remove the tumor.
At MD Anderson, I met first with colorectal cancer surgeon Dr. Miguel Rodriguez-Bigas. He did additional tests and scans to confirm my diagnosis. He agreed that I needed to have the tumor removed. But since we’d caught it early, he said I’d only need a temporary ostomy. He could reverse it about three months later, after my body had had a chance to heal.
That plan sounded a whole lot better to me. So, Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas removed the tumor, part of my colon and my entire rectum during surgery on April 19, 2015. He got all the cancer out, so I didn’t need chemotherapy, radiation therapy or any other treatment.
My unexpected melanoma diagnosis
At that point, I thought I was done with cancer. Unfortunately, cancer wasn’t quite done with me. Before my ostomy got reversed on July 22, 2015, my wife noticed a little pink spot on my back. She told me I needed to have it looked at.
We made an appointment with MD Anderson dermatologist Dr. Kelly Nelson for the same day I got my staples removed. Dr. Nelson examined it and took some tissue to biopsy. A week later, she called to tell me the results: I had stage I melanoma. I needed to come back and have it treated.
I still wasn’t feeling very good at that point, and I’d only been home from the hospital for a week. But I’m glad I went back: Dr. Nelson was able to remove the melanoma in her office, and that was it. Since we caught this cancer early, too, I didn’t need any additional treatment.
Why I feel blessed by MD Anderson’s expertise
I’ve been cancer-free since 2015. I only go back to MD Anderson now for my annual checkups. And every time I see Dr. Nelson or Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas, I remember how blessed I am to be at MD Anderson.
Dr. Nelson has an eye for spotting skin cancer that no one else has. Whenever she’s got medical students shadowing her, she waits outside the exam room and lets them conduct my head-to-toe skin exam first. Then, she comes back in to perform the skin check herself. And she always finds stuff that needs to be treated.
After Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas reversed my ostomy, my daughter took copies of my abdominal scans to the doctor in Memphis to show him what I’d had done. He was really happy for me, but admitted he couldn’t have done the same. So, I know I made the right decision in choosing MD Anderson.
My life today, after melanoma and colorectal cancer treatment
Today, I’m doing really well. But Dr. Rodriguez-Bigas took my rectum and a part of my colon out before putting me back together again. So, it took me a while to get used to the changes.
I think the sickest I ever felt was right after he reversed the ostomy. My gut would start cramping up and spasming. I’d have to use the bathroom sometimes 10 or 15 times a day. It was really hard on me. Finally, he put me on a medication called dicyclomine that’s used to treat irritable bowel syndrome. I take one pill twice a day now. It helps a lot.
I still have days when I can’t really leave the house. But they don’t happen nearly as often as they used to — usually if I try to do too much. If I stay on my feet too long, I know I’ll pay for it. But I’m retired now, and I’ve learned to slow down and pace myself. So, I get along just fine.