The diagnosis of cancer is life altering, but the diagnosis of Stage IV cancer rocks you and your spouse/family to the very core. That's the way my cancer journey started.
I was experiencing rectal bleeding and was referred to a board-certified colorectal surgeon. After a brief physical exam, I was told to be expecting cancer. Three days later, the colonoscopy confirmed that the growth was cancerous. The surgeon ordered CT scans of my lungs, abdomen, and pelvis and an MRI. I quickly learned that they are known as staging scans to determine the extent that your cancer may have spread.
The wait was excruciating. My husband accompanied me to the appointment, and after a few niceties were exchanged, he quietly told us that he was going to "cut to the chase". My cancer had already spread to my lungs; the primary tumor was quite large, and there appeared to be lymph node involvement. He told us that we had two choices – call hospice or to fight. I said, "We'll fight." He suggested having chemotherapy first to try to shrink the primary tumor, and together, we selected an oncologist.
After a few days, my husband and I found ourselves sitting with the oncologist. She commented that I was the "best preserved Stage IV cancer patient" that she had met. I relaxed somewhat. I had brought a copy of the CT scans in the event she needed them, and she said that she would like to look at them.
A few minutes later, she returned with a hint of a smile and told us that she disagreed with the first radiologist's opinion of my lung scan. She shared her opinion that she believed that I had just one cancerous tumor and that in a situation like mine (where both the lung tumor and primary tumor could be removed) that a cure might be possible. She warned, "We will have to be aggressive." And I replied, "Count me in."
Her unsolicited second opinion changed my situation from "hopeless" to "hopeful." Hope is the best gift that any physician can give to a patient. She laid out the initial treatment plan of aggressive chemotherapy every two weeks. At the end of six treatments, she would schedule a scan and hope for a modest response to therapy (just 20 percent shrinkage in the size of the primary tumor). Then she would present my case to the tumor committee for their opinions on how to proceed.
A chemo port was quickly implanted, and chemo would begin in a week. The weeks went by quickly, and I had my first post-chemo scans. The wait ensued to learn what the tumor committee would recommend. "Wait and see" is definitely part of the cancer treatment regimen, and those are anxious days until we learn about the next steps of our treatment.
The morning of my follow-up appointment, she breezed into the exam room with a big smile, "Would you like to hear good news?" And the news are certainly good and encouraging.
The tumor committee outlined the remainder of my treatment. We would begin with 28 days of pelvic radiation along with oral chemotherapy. I would get every weekend off for my body to rest and recover. After the pelvic radiation, I would have a specialized radiation (SBRT radiation - also known as the Cyber Knife) for the tumor in my lung. And finally, I would have major surgery for the tumor in my rectum.
It is now two years later, and I am cancer free. I am eternally grateful that my oncologist cared enough to look at the actual disk of my first lung scan and give us a second opinion. It changed the course of my treatment from palliative (keeping the disease under control and minimizing symptoms) to a potentially curative treatment.
Never hesitate to ask for a second opinion. Opinions are just that – opinions. A second opinion could save your life.
Jane Ashley was diagnosed with Stage IV rectal cancer in October 2014. She lives in Middle Georgia along with her husband. She enjoys photography, walking, and gardening. After a long career in magazine publishing, she has written a book for cancer warriors and their caretakers – "CANCER: The Light at the End of the Tunnel," which is available on Amazon. This guest column appears on Diagnosis: Cancer through our partnership with Inspire, an Arlington, Va., company with condition-specific online support communities for over one million patients and caregivers.