Name: Dawn Eicher

Age at Diagnosis: 35

I’ve had bleeding on an off since 1998. I was only 21 and my doctors didn’t think there was anything to be concerned about after I had a clean endoscopy. I told every doctor I’ve had since about my bleeding.  For years I was always dubbed “Too Young” and they assumed it was “just hemorrhoids” and nothing serious, especially not caner. Fast forward to June of 2012 and I was a pregnant, healthy 35 year old having her second child. I started noticing blood, mucous, thinning and pain when I used the restroom, but was assured by my ob/gyn it was “normal” at six months along and it was just pregnancy related hemorrhoids. I was prescribed suppositories and sent on my way. Three months later I gave birth to our beautiful baby boy, but my symptoms worsened, more bleeding and more mucous. Again, no exam or scope, just given more suppositories and sent home. Two more months and NO improvement! I was miserable and the doctors were giving me no answers. I made two appointments, was ignored again by my OB, but finally my primary doc agreed we should look into it further with a tiny scope in her office. She was not comfortable diagnosing it herself, but knew it didn’t look normal and fought to get me a colonoscopy.  This was seven months after I first had symptoms. Two more months went by went by as we waited for insurance to approve the procedure and had to wait to get into the busy GI doc. Finally on April 1st, 2013 I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer on the day of my colonoscopy. Worst April Fool’s Day ever! I had an 8cm tumor almost blocking my rectum, 2cm from my anal verge.  Scans the following week would confirm the worst – I was stage IV with a 4cm met to my liver. It was metastatic and it had spread! How could this happen? Even my docs just kept saying “You’re too young!” I was devastated. Wife to a wonderful husband, mother to a six month old baby boy and a two and a half year old toddler girl, our lives were turned upside down. I couldn’t imagine leaving my children behind, so we started the fight for my life.

The fight began with so many scans and tests. In a matter of two weeks I had my chest port placement (for administering chemo), prepared for radiation and had surgery in the hopes of avoiding menopause by moving my ovaries out of the radiation field (called an ovarian transport). I finally started chemo and radiation in May of 2013 with a chemo pump filled with 5-FU chemo, which I wore 24/7 and the nurses refilled weekly. I also went to radiation appointments five days a week for 8 weeks (30 treatments total and a break in the middle for third degree burns caused by the radiation). When that ended, we decided to try CyberKnife (external beam radiation) on the large liver met. It was successful and we let my body heal for 8 weeks before I started more neo-adjuvant chemotherapy for six months. We went with XELOX (oral chemo and Oxaliplatin infusions) vs FOLFOX as the mouth sores were unbearable with the pump. Had two clean scans and we scheduled my next step – surgery. I was against the rectal surgery, but every professional felt it was the only way – I must remove the primary tumor.

I had my Lower Anterior Resection (or LAR) to permanently remove my rectum on Feb 9th, 2014, which left me with a temporary ileostomy. That was definitely the darkest of places and lowest of low for me. The recovery was extremely painful, and adjusting to the Ostomy bag was very difficult. I now had “Thelma and Louise” (which is what I named my loop ileostomy because I wanted to throw it off a cliff) for three months before I had my reversal. The great news is the post-surgical pathology showed I had a complete pathologic response and radiation and chemo killed my primary tumor and the cancer in the surrounding tissues!

In May of 2014 my docs were ready to reverse the ileostomy. Prior to the reversal I felt strongly about having another PET scan and MRI to make sure I was disease free. Unfortunately, this would reveal I had recurrent disease in my liver. Again, I was devastated. We scheduled another surgery to happen concurrent with my ileostomy reversal – a wedge liver resection with gallbladder removal. On May 9th we proceeded with surgery, and it was a much easier recovery pain-wise, but the shock of your bowels waking up after months of not being used to it is unpleasant to say the least! I has been a very difficult few months, but finding my “new normal”. I had four more months of chemo (Xeloda) and I have now heard NED (no evidence of disease) for two rounds of scans.  It’s been 10 months cancer free and we are celebrating like crazy! Now is the time to take action.

I choose to live my life living in the “now” and I’m enjoying every second! I am not letting cancer rule every aspect of my life. It controls a great deal of it, but it does not own me! I am hoping to be one of the lucky few who survive stage IV disease. You don’t have anything if you don’t have hope and I plan on beating this beast. It’s important to me to get the word out that you are never too young for cancer, and people need to know the signs. I am an advocate for early testing and pushing your docs for tests if something isn’t right. Go with your gut (no pun) – if something feels wrong you are your own best advocate! Get screened and tested, don’t put it off! Keep current on your health checks, and insist docs get to the bottom of things when something isn’t right. I don’t want anyone else to go through this and I am rooting for all of my friends fighting this ugly battle. You’re either living or your dying, and I choose to live every day to its fullest.  I make the best of a bad situation by helping others and giving back; it gives me purpose and hopefully sets a good example for my children.  We are all in this together and our voices are stronger together.