We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Hanna Lengkeek, a stage III rectal cancer survivor. She was inspired to share her story with the Colorectal Cancer Canada community after hearing CTV news anchor Jocelyn Laidlaw speak about her own colorectal cancer diagnosis. Hanna currently lives in Chilliwack, BC with her husband Art and is actively involved in various volunteer activities in her community.
Seeing Jocelyn’s story in the news was a confirmation for Hanna “that it is important to talk to others about the importance of getting checked early (for colorectal cancer). Anytime there is a concern, don’t wait and see (…) I’m always looking for ways, other than being a wife and mother, to be helpful in the community. I feel it’s very important to share my story as well as the importance of early detection.”
In 2004, Hanna came back from a trip to Ontario and felt unusually fatigued during her time away from home. “I was always so tired and it didn’t get better after the trip”. She also noticed some blood in her stool. She made an appointment with her doctor for the next day. During the visit, a student performed a rectal exam but was unable to feel anything abnormal. However, Hanna insisted that something was not right and he agreed to refer her for a non-urgent colonoscopy. She was 66 years old at the time.
Hanna continued to experience symptoms of colorectal cancer and became increasingly worried as she waited for her colonoscopy appointment. On the day of her coloscopy, a very large tumor was found in her rectum. “It was a long stretch of time between my first visit and the surgery where something could have been done”, she says. She was diagnosed with stage III rectal cancer and had her entire rectum removed, resulting in a permanent ostomy.
Hanna’s husband, Art, is an incredibly active 91-year old and to this day assists Hanna with the care of her ostomy. They have been married for 64 years and “he is an 18-year record holder for putting on my ostomy barrier once a week”. She talks fondly of her husband – “he has stuck by me through difficult times”. Having retired the year prior to Hanna’s cancer diagnosis, Art would drive over an hour into the city to bring Hanna to her treatments. He would always bring a book, and prepared love notes to cheer her up throughout her recovery.
After surgery, she received chemotherapy and radiotherapy for about 8 months. She feels “lucky, having had little side effects from chemotherapy” but found the radiotherapy to be more challenging to cope with.
On Thanksgiving Day 2005, she received a call from her oncology team: “Good news – we are done treatment”. Hanna has been cancer free ever since. “We really lived it up afterwards”, she says, and travelled a lot– Hawaii being a favorite with more than a dozen visits. She started journaling her travels after cancer and often looks back on these during more difficult days.
During her journey with cancer, she didn’t talk much about her diagnosis of rectal cancer with those around her. Years later, her friends look back on that period on time and never imagined she was dealing with cancer. “You looked so healthy, I never knew”, they say.
Before she was diagnosed, she didn’t know anyone who had this cancer. Neither her nor Art had ever participated in screening for colorectal cancer. Today, all of her seven children do screening every 5 years.
She always keeps a note close by to encourages her, that even in older age, you can always do something to help those around you : “Hanna, you are a very special person and thank you for all you do. You are there to help others always”.