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Carla Harrington (Colon Cancer Survivor)

Carla Harrington (Colon Cancer Survivor)

It started in 2007; I was misdiagnosed for about a year. My initial symptoms were abdominal pain, shortness of breath and bloating. I had gone to many doctors, but no one could properly find what was wrong with me. I was sent home with medicines and told I was just severely anaemic. But, I knew something was wrong because I was not getting better. By the end of 2007, around October, I became acutely ill and ended up in the hospital to get three blood transfusions. 

During my stay there, they brought in a haematologist and right away, she knew why I was losing so much blood in my stool and requested a colonoscopy. I had it in December, and three days before Christmas, I was told that I had a tumour the size of a golf ball blocking my colon, and I needed emergency surgery.

The surgery was scheduled, and that process took another month or so. In February 2008, I had the surgery, and they removed about 50% to 60% of my colon. The doctors were not sure if I would get through the surgery and survive this. However, the surgery was successful, and they removed the transverse area of my colon and the surrounding lymph nodes. 

After the surgery, the surgeon told me the pathology results were here and that I had Stage 3C Colon Cancer. It shocked me because I had been doing all the right things, eating healthy and avoiding red meat. And I was only 38 when I was diagnosed. I was in the hospital for nine days.

After my hospital stay, I was recommended chemotherapy, and the doctors gave me a choice between having a port put in for the chemo or taking it in pill form. I wanted to continue working, so I decided to go for the pills. I had to take four capsules in the morning, afternoon and night. 

I expected things to get better, but the pills were just as toxic as the port because I would become nauseous, I could not go outside in the sun, and my hands and feet were blue and hurt a lot. I lost my appetite and around 20 pounds, and I even ended up in the hospital several times due to dehydration. 

I had chemotherapy treatment for about ten months, and I had to go to the hospital once in a while to do infusion therapy. I eventually got through the chemo, and the treatment took three years. I had three surgeries in between that time, and I had to have some scar tissues and a lymph node under my arm removed. 

As of today, 14 years later, I have no evidence of disease, and the doctor says I am cancer-free. At the time of the treatment, I did not know of any family history of cancer. But years after I went through this journey, in 2015, my dad's brother was diagnosed with Colon Cancer and passed away within a year. That is how I learned that it runs on my father's side of the family. 

My family's reaction

Everyone was shocked because I was so young, and during those times, colonoscopies were not given until 50. But now, due to Colon Cancer being so common even in teenagers, I think the average age to get a colonoscopy is 30. I was told that my children need to get a colonoscopy annually once they turn 30.  

But, my family was supportive despite being very shocked. They did not understand much of how cancer worked, and that motivated me to become an advocate for it so that I could educate my family and myself. 

Alternative treatments that I tried

I was married to my first husband then; he passed away due to cancer long after I went through the journey. He was a nutritionist at that time, and we thought about taking herbs as a treatment method, but my oncologist insisted that I take chemotherapy because my cancer was in stage 3. 

However, I drank a lot of juices and stayed away from meat. Besides that, I just ensured I exercised regularly to keep my body fit, primarily cardiovascular exercises. 

My mental and emotional well-being during the journey

My faith in God and my spiritual journey during that time helped me. I became an ordained minister during that time and was part of a beautiful Church community, surrounded by many amazing individuals who helped me along the way. I also wanted to become an advocate for others as well, so that's what I eventually did. 

I did a cancer leadership program training in Cancer Research Treatment of America in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. 

After the training, another minister and I came to Maryland and started a cancer care ministry for our community. People would come for prayers, resources and even a place to share their experiences. We provided a place for caregivers to go and get the support they needed. So, we had a support group as well. 

Things that helped me through the process

The first thing was that I had a great medical team. My oncologist has been with me from the beginning. She was very professional and was in a position where I could put my faith in her. I also have a wonderful husband, whom I married last October. He knew my whole journey and ensured I was at the top of all my appointments. 

My top three learnings through this journey

 Cancer changed my perspective on life and made me appreciate the smaller things more, and I enjoy life to the fullest. I have come to enjoy nature, and My husband and I are always at the beach, enjoying the water. 

I guess I have more compassion for others now, and if I hear that anyone is going through cancer, I am always there to help.  

I feel like I have become a calmer person, and less stressed about life. It is essential because it makes sure your chances of recurrences are lesser. 

My message to cancer patients and caregivers

I would tell cancer patients to advocate for their bodies and understand themselves. Suppose you feel something is wrong, support it and get the necessary diagnosis and treatment. Find a doctor who listens to you. Never give up. Even in the darkest of times, there is still hope; even if you are in the final stage, there is still hope.

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