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A Continuum of Care: Living with Colorectal Cancer

Published on Jun. 19, 2020

Munson Healthcare Cancer Patient

At first glance, you wouldn’t know Cindy Timmer is living with stage IV colorectal cancer.

In fact, she bounces around her Traverse City home with the energy of a woman half her age. A retired landscape and interior designer, Cindy lights up when showing photos of her two children and three grandchildren.

She loves her space – admiring the city from her balcony at the top of Wayne Hill and describing the rooms she curated for her and Ed, her husband of 50 years.

Cindy’s an active wife, mother, grandmother, dog walker, cross country skier, and occasional kayaker. It just so happens the 72-year-old is fighting the second-most common cancer diagnosed in the United States.

A Surprise Diagnosis

In December 2015, a sudden bout of gastrointestinal and respiratory distress sent Cindy to Munson Medical Center. After receiving antibiotics, she developed a fever and worsening symptoms resulting in hospitalization. The verdict: a severe case of Clostridium difficile colitis (commonly known as C. diff).

After recovery, occasional bouts of post-meal diarrhea were deemed her new normal.

Cut to summer, 2017. Cindy felt an aching pain in her right hip and groin after a day of backyard landscaping. While seeing her internist, Marci Bultemeier, DO, Grand Traverse Internal & Family Medicine, she didn’t think to mention her sleep difficulties due to constant restless leg syndrome – a malady she self-diagnosed as a “family trait.”

Chronic GI Issues

By Thanksgiving, her GI issues and nervous leg had become chronic. At Ed’s urging, Cindy consulted her doctor once again. A blood test revealed severe anemia possibly due to cancer. Her gastroenterologist, Jeffrey Goldman, MD, Digestive Health Associates, performed a colonoscopy and a CAT scan revealing a 4+ cm tumor in her colon. Her diagnosis: invasive adenocarcinoma of the ascending colon with possible periaortic lymph node involvement.

It wasn’t long before Cindy scheduled a pre-surgery appointment with colorectal surgeon Richard Tooley, MD, FACS. “While awaiting consult, my daughter did extensive research on both my tumor location and possible metastasis,” Cindy said. “Her detailed email to me entitled ‘One & Done’ was a cry for one surgery to remove all cancer sites at the Rochester Mayo Clinic.”

Dr. Tooley heard Cindy’s concerns and approved an additional PET scan to further define the distant lymph node involvement. The PET scan confirmed tumor activity in the distant nodes, which required open abdominal surgery. 

Without hesitation, Cindy entrusted her surgery to Dr. Tooley at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. Not only because the surgeons understood her case, but also because they knew her. Both as a patient and as a person.

Post Surgery Diagnosis

Post-surgery is when Cindy described her “deer in headlights” moment as Dr. Tooley presented her ultimate diagnosis: stage IV colon cancer. But there was good news. She was “RO,” short for all recognized tumors removed.

“Yes, my mortality reared its ugly head,” she said. “But I was so overwhelmed by such a positive flow of energy and prayers from family, friends, neighbors, and Cowell’s support team, that the shock and recovery period became not only less painful but also more  uplifting as the ‘first course’ in my mandatory learning curve of being a cancer patient.”

In March 2018, Cindy began treatment with her first oncology consult – where she began a regimen of oral chemotherapy for the next 7 months.

The treatment journey: A new reality

Cowell Family Cancer Center Munson Healthcare

To Cindy, Cowell Family Cancer Center (CFCC) was a pleasant surprise.

“I remember entering a light-filled, open space and being greeted by a delightful receptionist, who guided me past a guitarist strumming soothing chords. That made for a welcoming, rather than intimidating, start to my journey.”

It was here that Cindy met the support team she holds in such high esteem, including her Oncologist, Kristian Koller, DO, and her Oncology Dietician, Madelyn Drumm. In her words, Cindy describes the atmosphere as “a continuum of care, with moments of hope; with measures of honestly; wrapped with one-on-one compassion.”

Cancer Support in Many Forms

CFCC’s Health & Wellness Suite continues to provide Cindy with integrative massage, meditation therapies, and post-operative strength and stretching classes. It was here, through Fitness Navigator Annemarie Wigton’s exercise class, that Cindy met her stage IV colorectal cancer soulmate, Linda Brooks.

The duo became fast friends. Along with their weekly self-scheduled “Tea & Me” chats, they soon joined CFCC’s general cancer support group. And it wasn't long before the duo recognized the need for a separate GI-based support group where members felt free to discuss situations unique to their disease. Things like cutting short dog walks and dinners to deal with immediate gastrointestinal changes.

The new GI Cancer Support Group held its first meeting on Wednesday, March 4. Sadly, Linda passed away in September 2019, before their idea officially became reality.

Today: Time is of the EssenceNational Cancer Survivors Month June Munson Healthcare

For Cindy, life today is much the same despite her stage IV diagnosis. She continues most of her pre-surgery activities - things like yard work, social groups, skiing, and walking her beloved Golden Retriever, Wini. She does almost everything she used to do, just a little bit slower. And with six- month “reality scans” to spot any metastases.

“Stage IV implies time is of the essence,” Cindy says. “One of my greatest ‘aha’ moments came from reading a book, Ionia Dreaming… written by a world-recognized landscape architect Dr. Clare Marcus. Her book became my escape during the bedridden periods and bouts of anxiety wondering what was next for my body to take on.”

Helping Other Cancer Patients

These days she uses her time to help others through their own cancer journeys – making sure others receive the same information and feel the same support as she. Cindy refers to this mentality as, “the positive power from one person to another to provide a moment of hope.”

Her message to anyone concerned about colon cancer: know your family history. Especially your family’s history of polyps. Cindy inherited her father’s history of benign colon polyps, which prompted scheduled colonoscopies every three years. In 2013, her last scan before diagnosis, benign polyp results satisfied everyone.

This is why she also recommends paying attention to your body and not ignoring abnormal functions or activity.

“My colon cancer symptoms were not acute nor painful, but with subtle recurring signs, like bathroom urges and nervous leg movement,” Cindy said. “I unintentionally dismissed these when meeting with my doctors. I now keep a yearly calendar and make my own emojis as a reference for any changes in my bodily routine.”

Early Cancer Screening

Early screening is equally important. While cancer death rates are falling in patients over 50, colorectal cancer is showing more often in those 45 and younger. Most significantly, the disease is not gender-biased. When combining statistics from men and women, colon cancer is the second-most common cancer diagnosis in the United States.

When found early, colon cancer is treatable and beatable. The American Cancer Society now recommends colon cancer screening at age 45. Younger patients with a family history or abnormal symptoms may start screening sooner.

Visit Munson Healthcare’s cancer services page to learn more about screening, prevention, and treatment. See our colorectal cancer screening guidelines here.