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Patient Story: Bryna Dilman

My day started as it always did: I was woken up by my five year old daughter who wanted to come and snuggle in bed. It’s a wonderful way to start the day, and I was in good spirits when I went downstairs to start breakfast and get ready for the day. It was after I had eaten, had my coffee, and set up my computer for work that I stepped into the bathroom to brush my teeth, do my makeup and my regular morning routine. I noticed there was a little bit of blood in the toilet and, well, I kind of freaked out. But I talked myself down: odds were it was a hemorrhoid, but I made a mental note to follow up with my doctor. Well, the bleeding persisted throughout the day, and I got progressively more concerned. I mentioned it to my husband, and while he agreed with me that it was most likely a hemorrhoid, he suggested connecting with a doctor right away, but it was after hours at this point. It was November of 2020, so we had been in the midst of the pandemic for a while. We thought about going to the hospital, but erred on the side of caution and ended up having our first ever virtual doctor´s appointment at an online clinic. The doctor said he too believed it was most likely an internal hemorrhoid, but he wanted me to follow up with my own doctor sooner rather than later. I went to sleep feeling a bit relieved, but there was still a nagging feeling in the back of my head. The next morning I booked a call with my doctor who brought me in right away. She gave me an exam, but couldn’t see or feel anything, so booked me a colonoscopy.

A couple weeks later and I’m at an imaging center, having just woken up after my procedure, still doped up from the anesthesia they had given me. My colonoscopy was done, but I was told to stick around; the nurse told me the gastroenterologist wanted to speak with me. Even in my dazed state, I knew that wasn’t good. Down in the car, my husband was getting nervous: why was this taking so long? He called reception to see if I was ready to be discharged yet and they told him he should come up and stay in the waiting room, which was definitely out of the norm during Covid times. So there we sat, together, waiting to hear what we both knew was probably not good news. My husband tried to be optimistic: “We don’t know anything yet, it could be diverticulitis or something. Maybe you have polyps. Let’s not jump to conclusions.” But I could tell by the gastroenterologist’s demeanor when we walked into her office that it was something far worse.

And it was. But I got lucky too. She was convinced it was very early days. And, as luck would have it, during my colonoscopy, one of the country’s top colorectal surgeons just so happened to be in the room next door. So my gastroenterologist asked him to come in and take a look. He too was convinced that it was very very early days. So, the bad news came, but they tried their best to focus on the positive. I would still need to go get CT scans, an MRI and blood work done before they could say anything definitively, but they were optimistic. I, on the other hand, was in complete and utter shock. The whole ride home, my husband was driving with one hand so he could hold mine with his other. He was telling me not to worry, the doctors wouldn’t be so positive if there wasn’t a good prognosis. But I barely heard him. My mind spiraled into the worst areas. I couldn’t stop thinking about my daughter and the possibility that she might grow up without me. And when I wasn’t thinking about that, I was thinking about my own mortality and how I really wasn’t ready to leave yet. And then there was guilt: did I do something wrong to cause this? I thought I was doing all the right things!! Exercise, healthy diet, no smoking! How did this happen?!

I don’t think I really slept after that. I mean, I fell asleep, but only after my body had reached the point of complete exhaustion. I had panic attacks – just waves and waves of fear and terror and anxiety, washing over me. I had no appetite. But, I also somehow managed to pull it together the very next day and go straight to work. I had a call with my boss right before we started the day, and it was incredibly emotional on both ends. But then, we hung up and I hopped online and led a virtual call with almost a dozen people as if nothing had happened. I found that work really helped me forget things for a bit.

That colorectal surgeon who had been in the other room the day of my colonoscopy? Well, he ended up being the doctor who operated on me 6 weeks later. The process seemed to take forever and be a whirlwind, all at the same time! I had to do radiation to start, to kill the cancer inside me. It would also kill any chance for me to have another baby. We made the choice not to freeze any of my eggs, but it was a hard decision. I had to do the radiation all by myself because of Covid restrictions, but thankfully the staff at the hospital were kind, caring, and thoughtful, so it made things a bit easier. My treatment was successful and now I had 2 weeks of down time before my Lower Anterior Resection surgery. Again, time moved agonizingly slow and in the blink of an eye all at once. My anxiety had dissipated a bit. My surgeon kept reminding me “This is going to be 100% curative. I have complete confidence in that!” So I was one of the lucky ones. He was right. The surgery was a success. I was sent home after only 24 hours in the hospital!

My road to recovery has been a slow one. My body is still getting used to a new normal. I have a bunch of side effects, but they are all getting better with time. And I’m alive. Not a bad trade off in the long run. I’m still anxious. I probably have some PTSD from the whole situation, but the hospital had arranged for me to talk with someone (I guess they know this kinda thing can shake someone up quite a bit), and those talks have really helped.

I’m definitely a different person as a result of all this. I could give you some mawkish instagramy inspirational quote here, but really I’m just glad I’m alive. And I’m lucky I’m alive. I owe a lot to the doctors, nurses, and hospital staff who got me here. I owe a lot to my family and friends who supported me along the way. I’m tempted to just wash my hands of this whole episode and just pretend that it didn’t happen. But, I’m more inclined to look to the people who are going through what I went through and offer my support to them. Maybe help them get through this with a bit less pain, a bit less worry, or at least knowing they aren’t alone.

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