A Decade After Diagnosis – Colorectal Cancer: “What I Wish I Knew”

A patient of Dr. Patrick J. Loehrer shares what life has been like since her diagnosis at the age of 21. 

Her last appointment with IU Health oncologist Dr. Patrick Loehrer was filled with tears. Not because she received bad news, but because after a decade, Gwen Brack was being released from Dr. Loehrer’s care. 

She was a junior in college – studying at DePauw University when Brack was diagnosed with rectal cancer. Now Brack talks about her friendship with the doctor who helped save her life, and how her own life has changed – including an engagement and move to the Windy City. 

“It was really hard to say goodbye to him as my oncologist, because he is someone that I have placed so much trust in over the years. But he referred me to a great oncologist in Chicago,” said Brack. She recently got engaged to Noah Schmidt – someone she met at a wedding of one of her sorority sisters from DePauw University. She works as an account manager for Pearson Education and is settling into the Lakeview neighborhood where she is closer to her fiancé. Together they have a dog named, “Clark” and another puppy joining them soon.   

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month – a time the Colorectal Cancer Alliance promotes education and challenges assumptions and myths about colorectal cancer. To help aid in that awareness, Brack offers five things she wished she knew when she was diagnosed at the age of 21.

  • I wish I would have been aware that the symptoms I was experiencing were signs of colorectal cancer – the bloating, the bleeding when using the restroom, the change in bowels. I knew something was up, but I attributed the symptoms to my college lifestyle – too much beer and junk food. I would have seen a doctor sooner if I had realized the seriousness of symptoms. Since more and more young people are being diagnosed with colorectal cancer, it is incredibly important that people are aware of the warning signs, so they can take early action.”
  • People are usually kinder and more understanding than you expect – I have a permanent colostomy because of the location of my rectal tumor, and I was very worried about what my life would look like as a single 20-something woman. Dating is hard as it is, but add in a poo-bag to the equation and I thought it would mean the end of dating or ever meeting someone. How wrong I was. It turns out that most people really are more understanding than I originally anticipated. And I was lucky enough to meet my perfect match and am now recently engaged.”
  • “I have learned that in healthcare, you must be your own advocate, no matter how good your doctors are – You must press your team to answer all the questions you have, to take the time to explain things until you understand them. It’s ok to ask them why when they think something is the best treatment plan for you. Your life is literally on the line, so it is important to understand your plan of attack, why you’re choosing it over another line of treatment. It’s ok to present your medical team with other information you’ve found during your research. They should be able to explain why it would or wouldn’t work for your case. Don’t be afraid to challenge them. If he is a good physician, he will appreciate that, as he would do the same for himself/herself or their loved ones.”
  • “It’s ok and encouraged to get second or third opinions – Piggy backing on my last point, it’s ok to want more opinions on your life and well-being. It’s ok to not agree to the first thing someone presents to you without gathering more information. Ego should be left out of medicine, and if your doctor truly has your best interests in mind, he/she will welcome you gathering more opinions.”
  • “Life does go on, but it doesn’t get easier as soon as you finish treatment – I think most new patients think that once they finish radiation and chemo, and recover from surgery, and the immediate threat is over, that they’ll be back to their normal selves. Newsflash: That self is gone. It is forever changed. You will never be that same BC (before cancer) person. This isn’t a bad thing, but it is hard to reconcile. You will mourn the loss of that self. You will grieve the loss of the simplicity of life BC. You will cry for the body parts that have changed or that you’ve lost. It will take you time to remember how to interact with your friends and family, without every conversation revolving around cancer. Once you’re done with treatment, you’ll have extra time that you aren’t spending at the infusion center, or as an in-patient recovering from surgery, and you won’t know what to do with yourself. This free time is yet a blessing and a curse – a blessing because physically, you’re home free (for now), and a curse because your mind is now the main patient. I found this free time paralyzing. I would throw myself too many pity parties, and would yearn to see my favorite nurses and doctors, as they had become my new best friends.  I didn’t know how to live a normal life again; I could hardly remember who I was BC. Life does go on, but it takes time, and it takes work. It takes extending yourself grace and the empathy you would feel for others. Be patient with yourself. Getting a puppy doesn’t hurt to help pass the time either.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.