Silly Me for Trusting my Doctor
“All of my doctors didn’t listen to me.”
Her words echo on my screen as the news of her death still sinks in. Memories travel back to several years ago at the McMaster’s house, sitting in Adirondack chairs on the deck above the ripples of Lake George, as survivor Melissa Bates shared her story with me. We’d connected online many months prior; as a 20-something rectal cancer survivor she’d found me through The Colon Club. Meeting face-to-face for the first time felt like a reunion between two soldiers who’d been through a war together.
I knew parts of her story. She too was from the Midwest. Her symptoms showed up in high school, she was diagnosed at age 20 while in college. I interviewed her for her 2012 Colondar bio and asked her questions to help me understand the full scope of her journey. I learned there was more to her than cancer. She loved adventure and adored her family. She had lots of friends. Her passion was horses. She liked chocolate and milk – but not chocolate milk. While several elements of her story resembled bits and pieces of other survivor stories, Melissa’s stood out.
Unlike so many, including myself, who didn’t call the doctor when something went wrong, Melissa called the doctor when she noticed symptoms.
Internal hemorrhoids and stress seemed to be reasonable explanations for her doctors who convinced themselves that the 20-year-old consistently calling their offices wasn’t sick. Thank goodness for her persistent spirit and educated approach to treatment. She finally found a GI specialist with a cancellation who would see her. She drove five hours to the appointment where he biopsied a tumor discovered during his exam. She was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer just days later when pathology reports came in – sitting on a bus by herself surrounded by other college students at Iowa State who had no idea her world had just come crashing down.
Surgery to remove the cancer left her with a permanent ostomy. She fought doctors yet again for fertility options before treatment began; she wanted to be a mom one day. Unfortunately, her cancer was aggressive. Although she experienced a season of remission, it later recurred and after a long, strong fight, it eventually took her life this week.
Swirled emotions of missing a friend and pushing through survivor’s guilt flood the colorectal cancer community each time someone dies. Especially when it’s a close friend who’s also fought the disease ‘way too young.’ As pictures of her over the years show up in our news feeds this week, we respond with the only words we have, “This is so unfair.” The injustice of her short life is unbearable; we struggle with our lack of control. We hate that we can’t change the facts.
As a friend who knew her story, I wrestle not only with the reality of her passing but the burden of keeping her voice heard. She had an indescribable spirit that inspired each of us privileged to consider her a friend. The obvious message of her journey is one to the medical community – no amount of blood in the stool is normal. Never ignore or deny a patient who insists something in their body is wrong. Never assume cancer can’t happen to someone young – even colorectal cancer in a 20-year-old.
But even as I relay those obvious messages, I hear her voice in the back of my head telling me there’s more. Kind of like the day we sat in the Adirondack chairs above the ripples of Lake George.
At the end of her interview that day, I asked her what she hoped her story would do for others. She gave me a kind smile, trying to mask the fact I’d just asked a big question she wasn’t prepared for. She gave me a simple, good answer about how she hoped it would encourage others to not ignore their bodies, and to push doctors to listen even when they say nothing’s wrong and make you feel crazy.
The next day she unexpectedly pulled me aside. Out came a crumpled, folded sheet of notebook paper filled with notes from front to back. She’d been thinking about my question all night and wanted to add more to her response. I rapidly took notes.
She wasn’t satisfied with the obvious lessons from her journey. There was more to know about Melissa Bates and her experience with cancer. Here is what she wanted the world to see – the spirit that will forever be remembered in my friend:
– Embrace people who are going through the same thing.
– Having colon cancer isn’t an old person’s disease.
– Life isn’t over once you have a colostomy. Having an ostomy isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It’s improved the quality of life that I have. It was basically life or death and I chose life. Where I am in life, it’s only the beginning. My ostomy isn’t holding me back from what I want to do.
– Ask a lot of questions.
– Follow your heart throughout your treatment as far as what you think would be good for you.
– Believe in yourself and in your treatment team; that positive attitude helps you through everything.
– Take time to heal.
– Don’t go back to your normal life too soon.
– My faith has helped get me through everything. He has everything planned out and knows the plan more than we do.
– One thing cancer has helped me learn is take the time to enjoy life and don’t go rushing through it all of the time.