This year, 150,000 people in the United States will walk into a doctor’s office where they will discover that their biggest fears have come true - they have colorectal cancer. The hope for a condition other than cancer is shattered into a million little pieces, leaving a tempered glass look into the unknown future of a life now fighting for survival. This diagnosis is particularly devastating for those that sought treatment because of symptoms they were experiencing, as these symptoms rarely present themselves in a contained cancer found in the colon. This is exactly the future Shelly Ramseur found herself facing one Sunday morning, and we’re thankful she’s willing to share her story - raw and transparent - to help raise awareness of colorectal cancer and encourage you to be proactive in preventing this cancer.
When you heard your diagnosis, what went through your mind?
I had a mixture of emotions. I was devastated, I was afraid, and I was angry. You see, I had gone to the ER multiple times with pains in my stomach, nausea, and vomiting. I was losing a lot of weight, and I was getting really concerned. Now, don’t get me wrong - I was still cute and all! But, something clearly wasn’t right. They gave me medicine to treat those symptoms, and they would work for a little while. But, the pain would always come back. One Sunday morning, I was in so much pain that I had to call my sister, Alaine, to come and take me to the hospital. So, there I was in the ER again. This time, there was this young doctor who asked if he could do a scan of my belly. I said alright, and I was actually thinking that this doctor really didn't know what he was doing. I mean, he looked young enough to be one of my students! Well, they did the scan, and he came back in the room, looked me in the eyes, and said it looked like cancer.
My immediate reaction was anger. I could not believe that I had sat in that ER, with this young doctor, only for him to "mistakenly" tell me that I have cancer. He had to be mistaken, right? At least that was my hope. I have to admit, though, that bubbling behind my anger was a growing sense of fear that his diagnosis was really true. Cancer is in my family history, and even though I’m not sure which types of cancer they had, my grandmother and two of my aunts lost their battle with it. After a few moments to collect myself, he then referred me to Dr. Jimoh with CDHA.
What did you know about colon cancer beforehand?
I had heard of colon cancer, but I did not know very much about the disease at all. All I knew was it was a disease that people should get screened for around the age of 50. Well, I was 44 when I was diagnosed. I was not even the age to be screened. I honestly thought my symptoms were being caused by some food allergy that I was unaware of.
How did the Doctors ease your concerns?
When I met Dr. Jimoh, he was very kind to me. Dr. Jimoh told me that he read the ER report and saw the scan. He then scheduled me for an immediate colonoscopy. Within 48 hours, I was having that done. After the colonoscopy, when I woke up, Dr. Jimoh came to talk to me. I fully expected him to tell me the ER doctor was wrong, and I hoped he could just prescribe me something to take care of whatever must have been wrong with me. However, Dr. Jimoh confirmed that it was indeed colon cancer. I burst into tears, and Dr. Jimoh embraced me. He said that he knew that was not the news I wanted to hear. I remember saying to him "I just graduated with another Master's, I don't have time to be sick"...."what about my job"...."I have so many other things to do and focus on right now"....and then Dr. Jimoh said some very piercing words to me. He said, "let's focus on saving your life". Suddenly, my life changed.
It was really hard because I’m the type of person that likes to be strong - both for myself and for others. It was hard to be strong, though, when I was losing my house, as I couldn’t work and didn’t have money to pay my bills. It was difficult to be strong and be faced with going back and living with my parents. Even though they welcomed me with open arms and gave me their unconditional love and support, living with them just felt like a constant reminder of the ‘why’ I was living with them.
And then, something just changed. I was writing a lot - I love to write, and writing really helped me face some of my fears. It even helped change some of my perspectives. I’d write songs, write out prayers, write out encouragements, and write how I was feeling - whether bad or good. And in the middle of writing one day, I realized I needed to have a change in perspective. I was letting cancer beat me down, and that realization hit me like a ton of bricks. I was always so focused on the why. “Why me?” “Why did I get it?” “Why now?”
And you know what? I was focusing on the wrong thing.
While I was focused on the “Why?”, what I really needed to be focused on was the “What”. “What can I do about it?” “What can I do to help others that are going through what I’m going through?” “What can I do to encourage others through their struggles - whether it is cancer, divorce, issues with their children, or even some other terrible issue?” “What good can come from this?” “What can I learn about myself through this?” “What can I do to beat this thing!?”
You see, my life had always been about the ‘what’. It’s ingrained in me. The “why” questions, though, clouded my thoughts and gave me a negative, ‘woe is me’ type of perspective on so many things in my life. I realized that in order to do what Dr. Jimoh said - to focus on saving my life, I had to focus on the ‘what’. What am I going to do to beat this? And with that, my perspective changed.
It’s not like there aren’t moments where I’m sad, afraid, confused, or even feel defeated. I was diagnosed with another form of cancer a year later after having been diagnosed with colon cancer. That diagnosis was really difficult to handle at first. However, with my new perspective, I was able to look at this diagnosis through a different lens. The blessing is that if I had not already been receiving cancer care, then this could have gone undiagnosed Just as God is keeping me in His care through my colon cancer, He is keeping me in this too. Yes, the battle continues, but God is there completely with me, so I know He is covering me. With that, I can choose to stay positive and believe that the best is yet to come in my life.
What do you wish you had known or better equipped for?
I do wish, in retrospect, that I had been more knowledgeable about colon cancer in general, about the signs and symptoms and even how to prevent it. Perhaps, if I had been more aware of the potential symptoms I would not have wasted so much time going back and forth to the ER.
What were you most scared of going into your procedure?
I was most afraid of dying. I was most afraid that cancer was going to be the end and/or sum total of my life. I was afraid of impending changes and turns that my life was getting ready to take into the unknown. No one truly knows how they will handle a situation until they are actually faced with it. I have grown spiritually during this time of sickness. This is growth that perhaps I would not have made if I had not been made to stop and be still. When you are sick, recovering from procedures, etc., you are left with a great deal of time on your hands to think, ponder, and for me, to grow in my faith.
What was your experience specifically with CDHA?
My experience with CDHA has been nothing but professional and personal. Everyone has been so kind. Everyone has made me feel that I matter. This is important especially when a person is going through a major sickness.
How did you feel about your treatment?
Dr. Jimoh has always taken excellent care of me. He has always greeted me with a smile. He has also made me feel like he was right in all of this with me. He never made me feel like I was alone. He referred me to an excellent oncologist which has managed my cancer treatment in a way that makes me feel like I am important and getting the best care possible. I am in excellent hands.
What would you say to someone who hasn't gotten a colonoscopy yet, or has skipped it?
I would encourage him or her to PLEASE go get screened. I have actually been an advocate for screening since my diagnosis. Then, when Chadwick Boseman and Natalie Desselle-Reid, who are famous, died from the disease, it actually put a face to the disease. I have been telling my friends and family to get screened. I believe the recommended age is 45 now. This is especially important for African-Americans because we, as a community of people, often neglect our physical health. I know I was guilty of that. Sometimes, we often do it because of the disparities in healthcare that minorities have to deal with. However, it is better to be proactive instead of reactive. I would rather err on the side of caution. I think, if we were all to be honest with ourselves, we all would. My encouragement to everyone is to get screened!
Looking back, what is something that you have learned through this experience?
Even through the tears I cry, even when I don’t understand, it is not my responsibility to “figure it out”. Instead, my responsibility is to “faith it out”. The bottom line simply is that God’s ways are not my ways, and His thoughts are not my thoughts. Why? Because He is God....and He is very, very good at it!
If you have questions or concerns about colorectal cancer, do not wait tocall us at Carolina Digestive Health Associates. We want to help everyone, but especially young people, avoid a colorectal cancer diagnosis. Pay attention to your bowel habits and let us know if you notice any sudden changes.