By JESSICA GRAY
Colleen Shea knew when she stepped into the Northeast Georgia Medical Center on Jan. 8, 2014, that she was sick. She had been sick for weeks, since Thanksgiving.
In the beginning, she thought it was a very bad case of the flu or a stomach virus, and her symptoms were similar. She felt stomach pain, bloating, nausea, and a sudden loss of appetite. Still, her symptoms were nothing extraordinary.
“I wasn’t in any excruciating pain or anything,” Colleen said. “I thought I had caught a really bad stomach bug, or a terrible virus I just couldn’t kick.”
Colleen was a single parent without health insurance so a trip to the local doctor’s office had been out of the question. She just couldn’t afford it and had planned to tough it out until she got well.
That morning, she finally admitted she was not getting better and, at the insistence of her 15-year-old daughter, Colleen relented to see a professional.
“That’s the thing about being a parent, we always worry about our kids,” she sighed. “We forget to worry about ourselves.”
When she stepped into the urgent care center that frigid winter morning, Colleen was simply hoping for some antibiotics. Instead, she received devastating news.
It was stage four ovarian cancer; an unexpected turn that no one can plan for.
“It’s like getting sucker punched,” said Colleen. “It knocks the wind right out of you.”
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is known in the medical community as the silent killer. Early stages have virtually no symptoms and there are no routine screenings offered, at least none covered by insurance. Because this type of cancer does not display any symptoms until the disease has progressed into advanced stages, it is much harder to treat.
While every cancer exacts a devastating toll, ovarian cancer is disproportionately deadly by killing two out of every three women that are diagnosed. This statistic, according the Center for Disease Control, hasn’t changed for three decades.
In the most advanced stage four, cancer had spread from the ovaries into the pelvic cavity and, usually, vital organs are compromised. In Colleen’s case, this included four large tumors: one on her bladder, liver, colon and on the outside of her right lung.
The unfortunate late diagnosis and the invasive nature of chemotherapy concerned doctors that Colleen was too weak to fight the disease. The cancer was too advanced to survive even one round of chemotherapy. If they did move forward, in her case, the goal was not to cure but to slow down the tumors progress to extend her life.
The information was a very somber realization for Colleen, being in all of the low-risk categories for cancer.
“I really didn’t think it would happen to me,” Colleen said. “I had no family history. I don’t smoke or drink. I’ve always been healthy but I guess everyone thinks it won’t be them.”
Despite the grim prognosis and insurmountable odds, Colleen decided she was going to fight if not for herself, then for her daughter.
“I knew that my time might be up. I would die if I did nothing, and in some ways, I was actually at peace with that,” she admitted. “I’m not scared to move on. What I struggled with was leaving Caitlin alone at 15 years old.”
That day, Colleen set up a plan in order to begin emergency chemotherapy. If she survived the first round, a hysterectomy was also scheduled to take place.
“Normally, with ovarian cancer, women have the hysterectomy before the chemo treatments start,” Colleen explained. “But in my case, I was so far advanced that the chemo literally couldn’t wait, or I’d have been dead.”
Helping 15-year-old Caitlin process the news was equally difficult. No one wants to lose a parent, especially as a child.
“My mom is my best friend,” Caitlin said. “She’s my rock.”
One week after her trip to the urgent care center, Colleen signed into the hospital for her first round of treatment with her daughter by her side. Neither of them was really sure what to expect. Because of the prognosis, they had prepared for the worst-case scenarios.
Initial side effects of chemotherapy can vary, but generally nausea, vomiting, and hair loss are all common among chemotherapy patients. Instead of becoming worse after her first round, Colleen felt better.
“No one really expected me to live, so just that was a small victory.”
Because the tumors had been pressing against her stomach, she hadn’t been eating much for weeks. Colleen went home and for the first time, she ate a full meal. She then slept all night for the first time in months. Every day and with every treatment, she began to feel better then the day before.
In fact, her body responded so well to the first treatment that even the hospital staff was shocked. As treatments continued into March, April and May, the chemo continued to produce astounding results.
“They expected me to die and instead, was getting well.”
In August, Colleen was well enough for doctors to move forward with a successful hysterectomy surgery.
On Oct. 30, 2014, more then 10 months after being diagnosed, Colleen Shea officially entered remission.
While Colleen knows her battle is far from over, she is grateful to be alive, knowing that 70 percent of all ovarian patients relapse within 24 months. She is currently 11 months into her three week “death sentence”. Doctors will continue to follow up with blood work and scans every six weeks, continuing to monitor her incredible journey; a remission that even they admit is miraculous.
In September, Colleen was asked to participate in trial study where doctors will study her progress in order to better understand why her body responded so well to treatments with hopes of improving treatments for other patients in the future.
When asked what the most important thing she has learned from her experience, Colleen said her greatest lesson was kindness.
“How kind the world is, is profoundly moving,” she said. “So many people stepped up to help me, to help Caitlin. The outpouring of love and generosity has been incredible, and I’m so grateful for that.”
She also shared that she wouldn’t change having cancer, even if she could. It has given her a lot of time to think and gave her a new perspective on life.
“After everything, right now I get to figure out what I am going to do with the rest of my life,” she said. “The fact that I get to contemplate that, I get to say that… life is beautiful.”