My name is Tonya Dennis. I am a 48-year-old married mother with two children (ages 20 and 17). I’m also a stage III colon cancer survivor and I have a story to tell!
In December 2010, during a routine visit to my OB-GYN, the doctor read my family health history and realized I had documented my grandmother being a colon cancer survivor. Because of that, she suggested I have a colonoscopy. Honestly, I was surprised she suggested this. After all, no other physician had ever recommended a colon screening and my paperwork had always indicated this family history. And other than this family history, I had no other suspicious signs or symptoms.
Regardless, in April 2011, I had my first colonoscopy. The prep for the colonoscopy was probably worse that the actual procedure. I mixed Gatorade with Metamucil and took two Dulcolax tablets as instructed. Needless to say, I stayed in the bathroom all night! I was put under anesthesia for the actual procedure so I don’t remember much of that. I remember being a bit sore afterwards but nothing very painful. I was given pictures afterwards and a report, but nothing jumped out as a concern. Which is why I was completely stunned when I was called into the doctor’s office and the gastroenterologist told me I had a tumor in my rectum; this meant I had rectal cancer. I was just 46 years old at the time.
Of course, this news was not only devastating to me but to my husband, children and family and friends. After my diagnosis, I was referred for a CAT scan and MRI. The results of these tests, thankfully, indicated that the cancer had not spread to any major organs. I was then referred to an oncologist, radiologist and a surgeon who told me I would need to have a temporary ostomy bag placed on my body in order to remove the tumor; the bag would be reversed eight weeks later. The oncologist started me on oral chemo pills and the radiologist prescribed a regimen of radiation to shrink my tumor. The mass shrunk and was removed, along with the colostomy, in August 2011.
I must say, having a colostomy was an experience! Attaching and removing a bag that contained your waste was a task. But I was grateful to be alive! And although I was happy when the reversal came, it brought with it a new set of challenges. I had unexpected bowel movements and had to wear Depends disposable diapers. And being a 47-year-old woman, I felt somewhat embarrassed. But I learned to keep a positive outlook because after all, I was alive!
Following my initial surgery, I was started on intravenous chemo. Chemo was a challenge; the nausea and loss of appetite were exhausting and overwhelming. I could not eat and when I did eat I felt like I was stuffing cotton balls in my mouth. Food did not have any taste at all. But I took a tip from a cancer magazine and tried to eat foods with hot sauce and other strong flavor like onions! Thankfully my doctor was able to reconfigure the dosage in order to give me some relief and still be effective. My appetite returned. I completed chemotherapy in March 2012! My follow-up CAT scan and colonoscopy went well and I am currently displaying no evidence of disease! I was able to return to work full-time in April 2012!
This experience has taught me so much. I’m so grateful to God for allowing me to live and for a supportive husband, children and extended family and friends! I don’t take anything for granted, including being able to be treated by great doctors and have good health insurance. I donated all of my unused ostomy supplies to my home health agency to help others who were not as fortunate. I can’t imagine not be able to afford these necessary items!
I will spend the rest of my life trying to educate people about the importance of colonoscopies, particularly in the African American community who, according to medical professionals, are at a higher risk of colon cancer. I still worry about reoccurrence and continue to follow the news regarding lowering risk, but I will continue to enjoy and appreciate life and live it to the fullest every single day. I am grateful to be given the opportunity to tell my story and want to encourage all of those diagnosed and those survivors and caregivers to live on and remain positive! You too can get through it. A cancer diagnosis is devastating but you can prevail! Life is precious and you should live it to the fullest! My 86-year-old grandmother is a 26-year colon cancer survivor does this every day and I will too.
Tonya Dennis, 48
North Charleston, SC