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Anna Payne

Patients & Survivors Stage IV Colon Cancer Pennsylvania
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Anna's Story

For 34 years, I’ve choked down close to 50 pills as part of a daily regimen to manage my cystic fibrosis (CF). But the one bitter pill I wasn’t prepared to swallow was when I was told, “You have stage IV colon cancer.”

I think about my doctor’s words now as I grieve the life I almost got to have, one that seems like a distant dream. The nightmare call came less than two years after I started TriKafta®, a life-changing drug that turned a death sentence into a chronic illness that can be managed with medications and treatments.

For the first time in a long time, I had hope. Hope for a future of a “healthy” life. I had big dreams and a lot of things I wanted to accomplish. Now those things are on hold because my future holds so much doubt. But I still cling to the hope that things will get better — and I’m committed to helping other cystic fibrosis survivors from swallowing the same bitter pill.

Known as the “silent cancer,” colorectal cancer remains the third-leading cause of death in the U.S. among the general population, partly because patients report experiencing few or no symptoms. There are about 70,000 people worldwide living with cystic fibrosis, and we’re at five to 10 times greater risk for developing colorectal cancer. What makes us especially vulnerable is that symptoms can and often do mimic issues that CF survivors experience daily.

I’m 34 years old, had few symptoms and no known family history. I sensed something was wrong over the summer, because of intuition more than symptoms. I had minor digestive issues, which I thought were caused by something I ate. They persisted, and I second-guessed myself. TriKafta helped tip me off because it worked so well that I was not used to these changes in my digestive system.

In June, I found a mass in my groin, the size of a dime. Doctors ordered an ultrasound, which was inconclusive. An appointment with a general surgeon took weeks to get, and in that time the lump grew to the size of a walnut. I went to my CF care team for help. They found a bowel blockage — a common condition for those with cystic fibrosis known as Distal Intestinal Obstruction Syndrome, or DIOS. We hoped a colon cleanse would clear the blockage, but deep down I knew it was something more serious.

I implored the doctors for help and was eventually admitted to the hospital for a CAT scan. The tumor didn’t initially show up on the scan because my bowels were inflamed from the cleanse.

Four more days went by before the doctors biopsied the groin mass, something I asked for on the second day. At first, the doctors seemed to dismiss the idea, thinking I was too young. A week after the biopsy came the bad news. I burst into tears. My CF team contacted an oncologist and arranged for an appointment for the next day. A PET scan revealed the cancer spread to other organs, including my liver, ovaries, and lymph nodes. My liver has more than 14 tumors or lesions, which was heartbreaking to hear.

I feel like I’m just cancer, not Anna anymore, transformed back into that sick, vulnerable girl who spent many nights curled up in a hospital bed, unsure of her future.

For years, I’ve been involved in local politics, serving as a supervisor of my local township government board and have aspired to run for Congress. As I grew more financially stable in my 30s, I planned to travel across the globe, go to Australia and hold a koala bear, and take in the sun-drenched islands of Costa Rica, but all that has been put on pause.

I started with immunotherapy, but my cancer did not respond. I’ve since begun chemotherapy done every other week over three days and requiring me to be outfitted with a take-home pump that leaves me fatigued and immunocompromised. That also means I’m more susceptible to infections and viruses that can be deadly for those with CF.

Five times a week, I’m hooked up at home to a pole with IV fluids to help me rehydrate and recover. Naturally, that’s required me to adjust my social life, relying on a network of friends who keep me company at my condo. I play cards — Rummy is my favorite — and have developed an affinity for puzzles. Although after spending five hours on a 500-piece puzzle, I was quite annoyed to find it was missing a piece.

Work has taken a back seat, but my employer remains supportive and helpful, allowing me to work remotely — as much as I’m able. Colleagues, who I miss interacting with dearly, have taken up the load in my absence. I’ve even come to miss the 45-minute commute to the office and stopping each morning to get a hot tea — no lemon or sugar — at Dunkin’.

Simple joys like eating — which we all take for granted — are now a chore. I eat for calories, six small meals a day, not pleasure. I changed my diet changed drastically, forcing myself to learn just how many foods contain fiber. It has caused me to lose about 20 pounds off my already-slight frame. I no longer enjoy foods I’d grown up eating, almost ritually, such as macaroni and cheese and steak. As a result, I’ve stocked up on Fruit Loops and Apple Jacks, and probably have enough boxes in my house to qualify as a cereal killer.

My platinum blonde hair, with blue streaks, is gone. That came as another shocker, as the chemotherapy doesn’t cause hair loss in most colorectal cancer patients. To deal with the hurt and depression of losing my locks, I’ve turned my room into a Hollywood-style dressing suite, equipped with multiple wigs that allow me to feel like a different superstar each day.

Now that it’s getting colder, knitted hats are a must to keep my cute bald head warm. But I’ve often scrapped the hats in favor of the bald look so I can emulate my idol, The Rock. I remember watching him as a little girl every Thursday night on Smackdown on the small television set in my room at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia. Amazingly, The Rock learned about my diagnosis and put together a heartfelt video wishing me luck as I fight this disease. It was viewed millions of times on his Instagram page, and allowed me to feel less isolated, being connected virtually to so many people who channeled their positivity toward me from the comfort of my couch.

Recently, some of the most renowned experts met virtually for the North American Cystic Fibrosis Conference. The big takeaway from that conference was the increase in life expectancy for cystic fibrosis survivors, a nine-year jump to 50 years old, due largely to advances in medicine and treatments. As science improves and evolves, our thinking must also. Screenings must become a normal routine for cystic fibrosis survivors. The sooner the better. My hope is that the screening recommendation gets lowered to 30. But you don’t have to wait for that to happen before listening to your body.

If your body is telling you something, go and get screened. Be your own vociferous advocate. I’m 34 right now and am living in a world of uncertainty. There’s no set plan, timeline, end date, or outcome for me. But every day I’ll get up and live here, regardless of what gets thrown at me. I’ll learn to be comfortable living in the uncomfortable. With more screenings happening earlier, you may never have to.

Anna's Advice

Dealing with cancer is a lot harder than getting a colonoscopy. We can’t control any of how this plays out, but you can control how you respond and how you decide to handle it.

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