Two surgeries, two rounds of chemo, one round of radiation and half a head of hair later, Susan McKee is a colon cancer survivor. But this story might have ended differently.
At age 55, Susan was ready for her first screening colonoscopy. But the recommended age for screening is 50.
"I consider myself a well-informed person", said Susan. "I thought you had to have a check for colorectal cancer at age 55. I was wrong. Had I known, they might have caught my cancer when it was still just a polyp or at an earlier stage."
When Susan called to make the appointment in September, they offered her an appointment in January. When Susan mentioned she had some bleeding, which she thought was probably just hemorrhoids, they told her to come in the next day.
"Maybe it was because I was groggy after the colonoscopy or in denial," said Susan, "but I really didn't spend the time after that waiting to hear about cancer. I thought they were going to tell me everything was okay, so I was kind of knocked out by the call."
Susan went through simultaneous radiation, five mornings a week, and 24/7 chemo administered via a port in her chest. She carried around a bag of the chemo drugs with a pump, but continued to exercise regularly and work full-time.
"I didn't have a lot of the side effects that some people have," said Susan. "I was never nauseous. I started to have neuropathy in my fingers and I was extremely sensitive to cold. I had the sores in my mouth and some of that stuff, but for the most part, I was just chugging along."
"I never thought I would die," said Susan. "It did not occur to me. It wasn't in the realm of possibility. I didn't sit around and say poor me or why me. I just felt that this is an obstacle I have to get through and I'll get through it."
"It did make me more appreciative of my friends and my family," said Susan. Her children all live in other parts of the state, but one of them visited every weekend during chemo, and they all came for her surgery. Susan stayed with friends afterwards, and other friends took care of her dogs.
During her first surgery, doctors removed the tumor, several inches of colon, one ovary and the cancerous lymph nodes. Susan knew going into surgery that she would have an ostomy bag, a device that attaches to the outside of the patient's body to serve as a waste receptacle in the absence of a normally functioning colon. But the doctor wouldn't promise that the bag would be temporary. He told her if it was on the left side, it would be permanent; if it was on the right, it would be temporary.
"The first thing I did was feel which side the bag was on," said Susan, a lifelong Democrat and legislative aide. "It was on the correct side. It was the first time that to be on the right was a good thing."
Her second round of chemo was much worse, and she lost half her hair.
"I hadn't realized how much I liked my hair," said Susan. "I shouldn't care, but I do."
Susan continued to work, which helped maintain a sense of normalcy. She also approached cancer with humor, including naming her ostomy bag.
"I can't tell you a lot of the jokes that I've told on myself," said Susan. "Yeah, everybody has seen my ass. It's a great ass. You just have to laugh about it."
Eleven months after her diagnosis, Susan had a second surgery to reattach her colon and get rid of the ostomy bag. She had defeated colon cancer.
"Cancer doesn't have to be a life destroyer," said Susan. "Afterwards, you have a recognition that you've gone through something tough and you've come through it just fine. It gives you a different sense of self confidence."