Patient Story: Stephanie Budgell
Hi, I’m Stephanie Budgell, a colorectal cancer survivor.
I was diagnosed in March 2020 at the age of 35. You could say before my diagnosis I was living my best life: married to a loving husband, raising two kids aged 2 and 4, mid-career, and what I thought was the healthiest time in my life.
As a mom with two young children, I was either pregnant or breastfeeding for a few years and I chalked up any mild symptoms up to that. Pregnancy can cause similar symptoms as colorectal cancer. It wasn’t until my son was 18 months that I made an appointment with my family doctor. My symptoms were mild, but blood in my stool and a change in bowel habits made me think something was off.
Thankfully my family doctor scheduled a colonoscopy right away. This is not always the case for early onset colorectal cancer patients. I was diagnosed with rectal cancer on the same day the world went into lockdown due to Covid-19. Talk about your world falling apart. Further tests were done: a whirlwind of bloodwork, CT scans, and MRIs. I was determined to be stage 4 with metastases to the liver.
I couldn’t understand how I had Stage 4 colorectal cancer and seemed so healthy. Isn’t colon cancer an older person’s disease?! I ate well, ran half marathons, and exercised regularly. I lived my life doing everything in my power not to get cancer. I was angry and in complete shock. Treatment was started with six months of chemotherapy, FOLFOXIRI, and a targeted therapy, Panitumumab. I remember looking around the treatment centre on my first day and not seeing a young face in the crowd. I was mad and jealous of the older people that got to live a full life before getting cancer. Grief is funny that way. Luckily, the treatment worked well and it shrunk the liver metastases enough to be operational but the side effects were terrible.
I developed neuropathy and a horrible face rash, fatigue and hair loss. However, I was determined to push through. I spent the summer in lockdown with my family still hiking, going to the beach, camping and trying to make the most of our time together. In the month of August I completed a 500km bike challenge and raised $3,000 for Sick Kids while receiving my final round of chemotherapy.
Following chemotherapy, I had a liver resection in October 2020. They took about 70% of my liver during that seven hour operation. The recovery went well with no complications despite having to parent two toddlers.
In November 2020 I completed a short course of radiation on my rectum to stop any other potential spread of the disease.
December 17, 2020 I was back in the hospital again for an Abdominal Perineal Resection (APR) which resulted in a permanent colostomy. I remember looking down at my body after surgery and thinking wow how will I ever feel like a normal person again. My body was taken apart and put back together a little differently but I’m still here. I was released from hospital on December 23 just in time to make it home to my family for Christmas.
I’m happy to say I do feel like a normal person again. Different, but normal. I’m still struggling with the mental toll of not being in active treatment, navigating life with an ostomy bag, and fear of recurrence. However, life goes on and I’m thankful for every milestone I get to see my children achieve. My family keeps me pushing for more time.