My Cancer Story: Annette Reilly
My story begins when I was 30 years old. I had started directing theatre a couple of years prior, I was producing and directing my first film, and I was starting a family. Basically, my life was “on track” and a brand-new career path was revealed which I was excited to pursue. Everything changed in January of 2011.
I had started having extreme cravings for sand and dirt. I went to the doctor, recognizing this as signs of Pica (a mineral deficiency most common in pregnant women). I was told by the doctor that I was OCD and she tried to prescribe me an anti-depressant. I was reticent to go back to her, after the humiliation I felt during my previous visit, so I stayed quiet while more symptoms revealed themselves. First, it was blood in the stool. I explained it away as a dietary change. Then came the low-grade fever for two months. Then the intestinal cramping.
By the time I went back to the doctor, she reluctantly requisitioned some blood work, which came back as me being severely anemic. My hemoglobin was so low that I should have been passing out every time I stood up. It was well below the level where they do blood transfusions. Needless to say, this doctor’s solution was iron supplements and another blood test 3 months later, rather than exploring WHY a previously healthy, never-anemic-in-her-life woman was so severely depleted of iron. She tried to blame it on breast feeding. She tried to blame it on me being a young woman. I decided to change doctors.
At this time, I was having very severe intestinal cramping. I would have to call friends of the family to come watch my daughter as I writhed on the floor in pain for hours. I had a doctor who was sending me for tests, however the one test that would have found my condition instantly was still very far away. I had to wait for a specialist’s appointment. She decided we should check for a stomach ulcer first, so I then had to wait for an endoscopy. Meanwhile, I was in and out of the ER every couple of weeks because of the pain. Again, one emergency colonoscopy would have found the problem, but no one in the ER considered that a 30-year-old woman with no family history would have colon cancer. In all fairness, it was a long shot. However, I displayed every single symptom and it should have been the first thing they ruled out, not the last.
Finally, I received a colonoscopy in November of 2011, more than 10 months after the symptoms started presenting themselves. I was very lucky. A lot of colon cancer patients do not experience noticeable symptoms until the cancer has progressed to stage IV. I was diagnosed with colon cancer on November 21st, 2011; a day that will be etched in my memory for the rest of my life.
Once the diagnosis came through, I was scheduled immediately for surgery to remove my ascending colon. I was lucky again that the tumour was on my right side, which meant a fairly low chance of needing a colostomy bag. What wasn’t great about it was that the tumour had been growing through the lining of my colon, towards my liver. They didn’t know how much spread there was, and it would be a couple more weeks until I had my official stage diagnosed (stage iiib was the final result). Fortunately, through friends and a bit of divine intervention, I was introduced to this young, smart, incredibly talented colorectal surgeon, Dr. Elena Vikis. She took over my case, since she could do the surgery laparoscopically, which meant a shorter recovery time. That was priceless considering I had an 18-month child at the time.
I went in for a flawless surgery, spent a couple of months recovering then prepping for chemotherapy. Family had come in from Alberta to take care of me and my family during those hard times. I started chemo the same week as we started shooting my 2nd film. I was not directing this one, thankfully, as producing and acting in it was difficult enough. The next 6 months were a bit of a blur with ups and downs (mostly downs by the last couple of months). I finished chemo July 11th of 2012, another day that I will remember always, and was declared in remission as of August 30th, 2012. That is the day I celebrate, as I was finally free from cancer….so I thought.
Turns out, the first year after cancer treatment is very difficult. I had less support as I tried to figure out how to live with my new body and establish a new normal. I was hit with an onslaught of emotions and mental health problems about a year after I finished treatments. I had pushed down all the trauma I experienced through almost 2 years of being poked and prodded, 6 months of disgusting chemicals flowing through my insides, and months of being gaslit by the medical system because of age and gender biases, all while keeping a happy disposition and a smile on my face (because, you know, you “have to stay positive”).
All this emotional backlash led me to find Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC); a group where I connected with others my age who had been going through a similar experience. I didn’t realize how isolated I had felt until I met these people and my heart finally began its healing process. I am now almost 8 years out of treatment and barely a day passes where I don’t have an interaction revolving around cancer. Yes, I still have some bitterness about my situation and how much quicker my diagnosis could have come if the doctors and specialists had looked at the symptoms instead of the statistics. Yes, I am still living with PTSD and have been navigating those symptoms and learning how to function despite them. Yes, I am still adjusting to what my body and brain can and cannot do since treatments. But I have found a new sense of self. I have found a new sense of purpose and focus. I know deeply who I am now and what I am capable of. I will no longer apologize for who I am. I have learned to stand up for myself and advocate for myself in so many different situations. I know what’s at stake if I don’t.
I am here to advocate for those living with, through, and beyond cancer. I have passed the stage of patient, and I am now a survivor. Not everyone is that lucky, so I stand for them. It is my honour to do so. I speak openly about my experience and have partnered with groups such as Colorectal Cancer Canada to help spread awareness so that others, especially young people, don’t have to go through what I went through. I know the struggle. I see you, I hear you, and I love you.
All the best,