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Michele Parker

Patient/Survivor Stage III Rectal Cancer Alaska
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I fell in love with Southeast Alaska when I first arrived. Perhaps it was the unique environment of the largest remaining temperate rainforest in the world that attracted me, or the tight-knit and welcoming communities, which form a productive and pristine network unlike any other in the world. These are the reasons I stayed and have made Alaska my home. But when I was diagnosed with early onset stage III colorectal cancer (CRC), I became intimately aware of the challenges my community faced in accessing adequate health care.

As an active professional working mother, I started experiencing rectal bleeding on my daily runs.

Despite being a strong advocate for my health, I could not get a doctor to believe there was anything wrong with me. Six months later, I scheduled a colonoscopy in my hometown in Wisconsin.

It was there with my parents by my side looking like their beloved dog had just been run over that I heard my late-stage cancer diagnosis. Three days later I had my chemo port installed, underwent daily rounds of radiation, continuous chemotherapy, plus surgery all away from my husband and two young daughters.

My side effects included pain, LARS, neuropathy, and increased anxiety.

It was all a rush without time to process or advocate for saving my eggs or consideration of life after cancer. I was one of the lucky ones though: I survived, even with a the 5-year survival rate of only 14%.

My advice to someone who is afraid to seek medical attention or be screened for colorectal cancer is to seek medical attention immediately. It's your one and only life and it's up to you to make the most of it.

Bring a family member or friend to take notes and advocate strongly for you. Listen to your intuition. Be brave.

Spending a fourth of my life as a cancer survivor, I’ve learned a few lessons along the way.

I’m not going to lie and say cancer was the best thing to happen to me. It was scary and tortuous. I still have emotional, and physical side effects that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life, but cancer taught me many things at a young age.

First, it taught me to live with an open heart, to not let pain make you hate, to not let the world make you hard.

Second, life is short, and there is only time for love. Be kind instead of right. Be the bigger person and don’t sweat the small things. Always choose love and be intentional with your time.

Third, choose you. Follow your dreams. Always do your best and love yourself. It doesn't matter what other people think of you, what you look like, or how much money you have. Just do you.

Fourth, always have an attitude of gratitude. Shift your focus from the bad to the good. Find joy and happiness in the small things. The warmth of the sun, the love of your dog, the sound of sand hill cranes flying overhead, and humpback whales breathing.

Last, volunteer. I recently attended the American Cancer Society National Colorectal Cancer Roundtable (NCCRT) representing the Alaska Cancer Partnership. I am proud to chair our local Beat the Odds Cancer Committee in Petersburg, Alaska, that has provided over $500,000 in financial assistance for cancer patients in southeast Alaska for over 25 years and has allowed nurses at Petersburg Medical Facility to administer chemotherapy, so cancer patients can stay home with their loved ones.

I am passionate and eager to increase CRC awareness, advocate for prevention, decrease stigma, and provide support for patients and caregivers.

Some things that all members of Congress need to know is that CRC is rapidly shifting to diagnosis at a younger age, at a more advanced stage, and in the left colon/rectum. The real tragedy is that many of these cancer cases and cancer deaths occur needlessly, as they could be prevented if more people took advantage of colorectal cancer screening. It also means that younger people who survive CRC will have a lower quality of life due to LARS. Please publish information on LARS so CRC survivors are better informed and prepared. Lower the screening age to 30!

We need funding for cancer prevention screening, cancer navigation, resources, and support, so that information is always available.

Screening and early detection saves lives. When colorectal cancer is diagnosed at the localized stage, the five-year survival rate is 91%, and of course, many people live much longer than five years (and many are cured). Unfortunately, only one in three cases is diagnosed at this localized stage. If the cancer is not detected until late stage, the five-year survival rate drops to 14%.

Did you know Alaska Natives have the highest rates of colorectal cancer and mortality rates in the world? There are usually no symptoms until it’s too late; a colonoscopy can detect polyps in the colon early before they turn into cancer. Although it is one of the most common forms of cancer in the United States, it is also one of the most preventable ones!

Overall, the average lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 25 for women, but the risk of an Alaskan Native man is 1 in 14 and 1 in 12 for an Alaskan woman! Each person's risk might be higher or lower than this, depending on their risk factors for colorectal cancer.

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