Back in 2003, a Seymour woman began to fight off symptoms that persisted for nearly two years. Some of those symptoms she knew were more serious, while others were just annoyances.
Stool inconsistencies, she chalked up to irritable bowel syndrome, which she’d suffered with throughout most of her life.
She was tired all the time, but then, so are most people.
Blood in the stool was probably caused by hemorrhoids, she believed.
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Finally, 53-year-old Deborah Riley knew something was not right. She met with her family physician, Dr. Michael Calhoun, who sent her to a specialist.
“My grandfather had died of colon cancer,” Riley said. “I knew this. I was in denial.”
December 2004, a specialist, Dr. David Brown, performed a colonoscopy on Riley at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Franklin.
He told her the tumor was so large he could not get the scope past it. Riley was diagnosed with Stage 2 colon cancer.
‘Was I going to die?’
Heavy December snow prevented Riley from traveling to the Kendrick Colon & Rectal Center in Mooresville to meet her surgeon, Dr. Olaf Johansen.“Christmas was a blur for me,” said Riley. “I had so many thoughts going through my head. Was I going to die?”
Riley was more concerned with her family. How would her husband, Jeff, and their two sons, Evan and Owen, both teenagers at the time, get along without her? Her parents were elderly and needed her as well.
Jan. 6, 2005, was surgery day for Riley. After five hours in the operating room, Dr. Johansen had removed 2 feet of her colon and had taken 39 lymph nodes for testing.
“The tumor was gone, and none of the lymph nodes had cancer in them,” Riley said. “However, as a precaution to increase my odds of not getting the cancer back, I would have to take chemotherapy.”
Chemo treatments began the following month in Seymour, with Dr. Dolores Olivarez. Riley was given Leucovorin and 5-Fluorouracil.
The medication was given through an IV once a week for three weeks, with a break from the medication during the fourth week, for six months.
In March, Riley returned to work at Valeo and everyone was willing to help out so she could keep coming to work during her treatment.
“I had a great support team through my supervisor, Mark Verplank, co-workers and the HR department at Valeo,” Riley said. “I took (family medical leave time) as needed for treatments and worked the rest of the time.”
Good days, bad days
Despite being able to somewhat balance work and her cancer treatments, things were not easy for Riley.Some days she could barely climb the stairs into work. Other days she was so tired she would go home at lunch to take a nap so she could make it through the rest of the day.
“I did not lose all my hair, it just thinned and my skin got dry,” she said.
“I believed that God had a purpose for me and that he would get me through this. He did.”
After four years of colonoscopies and exams, there were no signs of the colon cancer coming back. The hemorrhoids she had back in 2004, however, had started acting up again, but this time they would not go away.
Riley wasted no time in going back to her physician to get it checked out; the news wasn’t good.
What was thought to be a hemorrhoid was actually Stage 2 rectal cancer, confirmed during another surgery Jan. 16, 2009.
The second cancer, totally unrelated to the first, was discovered by Dr. Bridget Sander of the Kendrick Colon & Rectal Center.
“I was blown away,” Riley said. “I had all of these colonoscopies and to insert the probe, they had to go right past where the new cancer was.”
She was told the probes are not normally read until they are past the anal entrance, thus the cancer had gone undetected until her symptoms sent up a red flag.
The second primary cancer required Riley to have a port-a-catheter implanted surgically under her skin.
Just days after her procedure, she began five weeks of continuous IV chemo treatments and 25 daily doses of radiation.
“The treatments made the surgery easier for the doctor and me,” Riley said.
Because of the location of the tumor, she would have to have a colostomy, she said.
A colostomy is a surgery in which an opening is formed by bringing the healthy end of the large intestine or colon through an incision in the anterior abdominal wall and stitched into place. The opening provides an alternative channel for feces to leave the body.
Riley had the surgery in April 2009 and much of her colon was removed. Her gallbladder was also taken out, and the new colostomy was created.
“The surgery went well, and I returned to work eight weeks later,” Riley said. “I had to have eight rounds of chemo after surgery to assure that no other cancerous cells would attack my other organs.”
The same two chemo medicines were used as before, but a new one called Eloxitin was thrown into the mix. Side effects included sensitivity to cold and numbness and tingly hands and fingers.
“Now I have an excuse for having butter fingers,” Riley said.
With the second chemo and radiation, Riley wore a chemo pump to work and took radiation treatments at Schneck Medical Center’s Cancer Center in Seymour.
Radiation caused left a lot of scar tissue and some bone deterioration, but it ultimately saved Riley’s life.
Not only did Riley have a support system at work, but her family, friends and church members also pitched in to help.“People brought food by, so I didn’t have to cook some nights,” Riley said. “My sons, Evan and Owen, helped more around the house, and my husband was my nurse and most enthusiastic supporter.”
Riley’s husband, Jeff, kept encouraging her by telling her she was going to get through this and she could do anything she set her mind to.
Both grew up in Seymour and attended high school there. She was a 1970 graduate, and he graduated in 1975. The two met when he played in a local softball league and the club she worked for at the time sponsored his team.
“I was a spectator when I met my husband, Jeff,” Riley said. “Some of us went to the game to see how they did and they won.”
Riley admits to being attracted to Jeff because he was tall, dark and handsome and had a full beard.
“We dated for four years before we got married in Springfield, Tennessee on May 23, 1986.”
The couple celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary this past May. Their sons are grown up now. Evan is 28 and Owen is 25.
Not slowing down
Having a colostomy did not slow Riley down much. She went on a cruise with her oldest son, Evan, in 2012 and had no problems with her apparatus.Riley has an older brother, Ray Hallett, who lives with his family in Schaumburg, Illinois. He now takes extra preventive measures and has colonoscopies as the doctor recommends.
Declared cancer-free in 2015, Riley is now age 64 and plans to retire from Valeo in 2018; she’s worked there for 34 years.
Riley said she thinks people should get checked for colon cancer at age 50 or even before if they are having symptoms that don’t seem normal or are bothersome.
A high school classmate of Riley’s was diagnosed with colon cancer six months after she was, but the classmate was at Stage 4 and ultimately did not survive.
“There are so many questions,” Riley said. “Why her? Why me? Then there’s the guilt.”
Her crusade is to get the word out about colon cancer and to let people know how curable it is if it’s caught early. Yet, colon cancer is the least talked about cancer among people because of the area of the body affected.Riley also is an advocate of Relay for Life and has been a relay participant for about the past 11 years. She has also served as Luminaria chairwoman.
“I have been through a lot and I am hoping my story will prevent others from having to go through what I did,” Riley said. “Cancer doesn’t affect just the person that has it, it affects the whole family and circle of friends.”
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The American Cancer Society recommends seeing your doctor if you have:
… a change in bowel habits, such as diarrhea, constipation or narrowing of the stool, that lasts for more than a few days
… a feeling that you need to have a bowel movement that is not relieved by doing so
… rectal bleeding, dark stools or blood in the stool
… cramping or stomach area pain
… weakness and fatigue