Ever since I was young, I’ve wanted to go to different places and see different things. I guess I’ve always been curious to see the world. But I didn’t really start traveling until I was in my early 20’s. I got the travel bug! I’ve been to Europe several times – Germany, Belgium and Italy, to name a few.
In January of 2016, I was headed to Puerto Rico for the second time. I have friends there who were letting me stay with them for a few months, and I knew from my previous visit that English speakers were in high demand, specifically for local congregations that wanted to reach out to more members of their communities. I decided not only to visit my friends, but also to participate in volunteer work around the neighborhoods in northern Puerto Rico. It was a life-changing experience for me. I stayed in a small town on the northwest part of the island and fell in love with the country. The people there are so kind, and it’s hard to explain, but I felt at home. Plus, the climate is great – there’s no snow!
When I returned home to Hanover in the spring, it was with the goal of moving to Puerto Rico at the end of the year. I have always worked for our family business, which gives me the opportunity and flexibility to travel. My family makes and sells prescription safety glasses for clay target shooting, so we travel all over the country from early spring until November. We always go to two large competitions in Texas for several weeks in the early fall to sell our glasses, but for the rest of the fall and winter, things really slow down. Thanks to that, I began to plan on living in Puerto Rico for at least part of the year and escaping the cold winter months. I really missed all the friends I had made there, as well as the culture and the environment, especially the beaches! I began looking for apartments online and purchasing things I would need for my big move. But this past summer, before my plans went into effect, my life was unexpectedly turned upside down.
It started with a fever and a cold in the summer, but then several weeks later, my joints started swelling and becoming increasingly painful; I was tired and in pain all the time. I ended up going to an urgent care facility one day because I was in so much pain. They decided to do some blood work to see what was going on. All tests came back negative, but they found I was very anemic. This had happened to me once before, so when I followed up with my primary care physician, we decided to increase my iron intake, which was all it took last time to correct the anemia. But a few weeks went by, and I was just feeling worse and worse. By the time we hit August, I was barely able to walk. I returned to my doctor, exhausted and in so much pain. After another blood sample, I discovered that my hemoglobin had dropped even more. I was sent immediately to the emergency room.
There, they did a series of tests to try to rule out other causes of my symptoms and help to treat whatever was at the root of the issue. I was only 36 years old; what could this possibly be? During my stay in the ER, I had my first colonoscopy; and that’s when they found it: a large mass in my colon. They determined that the mass was contributing to the anemia. The biopsy showed that it was precancerous, too. Luckily, the mass was contained in my colon; it hadn’t spread anywhere else. I was shocked and unsure about what it would mean for me. Possible cancer? Major surgery? I’m 36 years old, years away from the typical age for a regular, screening colonoscopy. Cancer was something I never expected to hear. My dream of moving to Puerto Rico had been within my reach, and these setbacks would delay my plans; but it was much more important that I get better first.
The Good News: New Options to Avoid Major Surgery
The idea of major surgery was very scary for me, but I learned that I was actually a candidate for a minimally-invasive surgical alternative at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. I had no idea there were such options for a tumor the size of mine. I was referred to Dr. Matthew Moyer who works in gastroenterology at the Medical Center and Penn State Cancer Institute.
The nice thing about this particular program is that it is an open program. Once you have a referral, you can call and schedule your appointment and surgery on your own. I got my referral in August and scheduled my surgery for November, which worked out perfectly because I was able to help my family during our busy season. We returned from Texas, and a few days later, it was time for my surgery. I was nervous, but when I met Dr. Moyer and his nurse, Heather, they were both so helpful in answering my questions. They explained what the procedure would entail and what my recovery would look like. I felt prepared and ready – I knew I needed to have the surgery so that things wouldn’t get worse.
The procedure itself was quick, and I was able to go home that night. My recovery had only just begun however. My tumor was much larger than originally thought, and therefore, my recovery process did not go as quickly as I expected. It was nice, though to recover in my own home with my parents around me.
I was so relieved to learn that this minimally invasive procedure allowed the physicians to remove the entire tumor! My tumor was, in fact, malignant—the mass was the beginning stages of colon cancer. That news scared me, but I was relieved to know that they removed the entire tumor.
Dr. Moyer, Heather, and everyone that I encountered during my time at the Medical Center were so kind and caring – they made sure I was comfortable and that all of my questions were answered. After my surgery, I got a few follow-up calls from Heather. She called to check in on my symptoms, if I was having any pain or if I had any questions about my recovery. She also scheduled a follow-up appointment with Dr. Moyer. During that appointment, he explained everything that happened during my surgery and even showed me photos of the tumor that was removed. I couldn’t believe that I had a tumor that size growing inside of me! Dr. Moyer also explained that not only did they find cancer, but they also found ulcerative colitis, which was another surprise to me. At the time of my surgery, I didn’t realize how intertwined my symptoms were, but Dr. Moyer was there to explain my condition and how to treat all of my symptoms. One of my symptoms at the beginning was swelling and pain in my joints – I learned that this was something called reactive arthritis, which actually comes from the ulcerative colitis. So I am receiving all the treatments I need and am finally starting to feel more like myself!
Back to my dream!
Looking back, I’m very fortunate that all this happened the way it did. If I hadn’t gone to the hospital and had the colonoscopy, who knows how large the tumor would have grown or how much the cancer would have spread! Other than the persistent anemia, I had no pain or symptoms related to the tumor…I had no clue that it was there. Plus, I was 14 years away from the recommended screening age for colon cancer!
I am so thankful for my doctors and my family and friends who helped me through it all. Now that I know I had colon cancer, my younger brother, Tyler, is also getting screened. Through all of this, I learned that there is a strong link between colon cancer diagnosis and family history. It is actually one of the biggest risk factors for colon cancer. I didn’t know of anyone in my family who had colon cancer, but since I was diagnosed very young, it is going to be important for my family members to get screened early.
Now I’m still hoping to move to Puerto Rico later this year! I will need to schedule routine follow-ups with Dr. Moyer every year or so, but for now, I’m finally on the mend. I can’t wait to see what adventures await me!