Teresa Flickinger has a message for everyone: Don’t wait to be screened for colorectal cancer. Don’t wait for signs, such as blood in your stool, to simply go away. Don’t wait to find out why you’re tired all the time or why your stomach often feels bloated. Essentially, don’t do what she did when experiencing these symptoms.
“If, like me, you have spots of blood in your stool, don’t just blow it off,” Teresa says. “A colonoscopy is easy and far better than finding out you have colon cancer that has been growing while it could have been treated.”
Teresa was just 40 when she first noticed blood in her stool, as well as bloating and fatigue, which she explained away as symptoms of aging or working too much. She waited months before seeking care because she didn’t have a family history of colorectal cancer and knew that the recommended age to begin colorectal cancer screening is between 45 and 50, as approximately 90% of new cases occur in people age 50 and older.
When she finally had her first colonoscopy, a mass was found. “I was certain I’d be diagnosed with colitis, and instead woke up from my colonoscopy to find out I had colon cancer,” she says.
Luckily, Teresa’s best friend, Lina, had taken time off to drive Teresa to her colonoscopy. She was there with her when she received the diagnosis, one that younger people are more frequently receiving. In fact, the rate of colorectal cancer cases among adults younger than 50 has more than doubled since the 1990s.
“I was still a little out of it,” Teresa says. “And once we were back in her car, I turned to her and asked, ‘Did they really just say I have cancer?’”
Sadly, they did. But Lina, later nicknamed “Bestie” by a member of Teresa’s care team, promised to continue to be there for Teresa, whatever was to come. Little did they know that would include a year filled with MRIs, radiation, surgeries, oral and infusion chemotherapy, and more.
“She is my guardian angel,” Teresa says of Lina. “The first thing she said was, ‘We’ll get through this,’ and we did. We’re friends, but she took care of me like family.”
Teresa’s ‘dream team’
Along with Lina, others who were part of what Teresa calls her “dream team” included her friends and family who traveled to care for her, as well as Dr. Charles Redfern, a medical oncologist; Dr. Geoffrey Weinstein, medical director of radiation oncology; and Dr. Mathew Isho, a general surgeon specializing in colon and rectal surgery, all of whom are affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital.
“All of my doctors were amazing,” Teresa says. “Dr. Redfern gave a very clear rundown of what was going to happen after my diagnosis, telling me it might not be easy, but we were going to get rid of the cancer. I loved Dr. Weinstein and his staff — they were all so awesome. And as for Dr. Isho, I felt like he, and what one nurse called his ‘mad skills,’ were gifted to me.”
Teresa is also grateful for the support of her supervisors and co-workers at the local hospital where she works as a nurse. She was able to arrange her schedule around every step of her treatment. What’s more, friends and colleagues donated 358 of their own paid-time-off hours to her so that she didn’t go without a paycheck for the entirety of her care and recovery.
Some challenges ahead
While her care and support were excellent, Teresa shares that there were some challenges related to her diagnosis. The radiation and chemotherapy treatments caused typical side effects. Teresa constantly felt out of breath and had tingling, numbness and a feeling of extreme cold in her fingers and toes.
Additionally, after much research and discussion with her doctors, it was decided that Teresa would have the surgery she had hoped to avoid. They all agreed it was vital to remove the cancerous cells remaining in her colon, rectum, lymph nodes and surrounding connective tissue after her radiation and oral chemotherapy treatments.
Having the surgery also meant that Teresa required a short-term ileostomy. This allowed her digestive content to pass through a hole (stoma) in her abdomen and into a pouch fitted to her body, providing her rectum time to heal. After surgery, she then went through 8 rounds of infusion chemotherapy.
“Throughout it all, I felt very positive and was constantly telling myself it was going to be OK,” Teresa says. “But when my ileostomy takedown was finally scheduled, COVID hit, and I was terrified the removal surgery would be canceled.”
The surgery wasn’t canceled, but her friends’ trip to San Diego to help care for her post-surgery was. Teresa also wasn’t able to have any visitors during her weeklong stay in the hospital, due to coronavirus-related precautions.
However, Drs. Redfern and Isho made sure to check in on her often and were amazed at how well she was doing. She was immediately up and walking the halls after surgery, determined to be more mobile and advance her recovery.
“Teresa is an amazing person,” Dr. Redfern says. “She had a positive outlook on her diagnosis and treatment plan from day one.”
Looking forward, appreciating those in her past
That optimistic attitude hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, she is back to working full time and regaining her strength. And as COVID-19 restrictions begin to lift, she is looking forward to doing more of the things she loves — hiking, lifting weights, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.
She recently marked the one-year anniversary of her last day of chemotherapy and was given the “all clear,” meaning no signs of cancer were detected. Moving forward, she’ll continue to have regular colonoscopies and checkups with Dr. Redfern.
However, she’ll never forget all the care she was given and the people she met along the way.
“I believe God puts people in your life for a reason,” Teresa says. “And throughout every experience I had at Sharp, there were people that kept me going. The care was personalized — I was treated like an individual — and each relationship was like a friendship.”
In sharing her story, Teresa hopes she can be the person God places in another’s life so that they can hear her very important — and potentially lifesaving — message: Don’t wait to get screened.
Colorectal cancer is highly treatable when detected early with screening. Learn more about how you can reduce your risk and schedule a screening.