Cheri Carlson, a 1984 Hernando High School graduate and past operating room nurse at Bayfront Health Brooksville, is also a colon cancer survivor.
The 47-year-old former Leopards cheerleader still has the youthful looks and enthusiasm she displayed three decades ago. Her energy level is a bit diminished, though, she said, due partly to the side effects of the drug she takes to help remain cancer free.
One would be hard pressed, though, to find any physical indication suggesting Carlson beat a stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis eight years ago.
"I had been anemic for years, after each of my two pregnancies," Carlson said. No other cause for her listlessness, exhaustion and depleted energy was considered because each time her blood was screened, the results were negative for other health problems. She was told anemia is common in women, particularly of child-bearing age.
But Carlson is a nurse, trained to look at things differently. Each time the results were the same, she was left wondering.
The answer came after yet another routine annual examination turned up nothing new. But this time Carlson saw a nurse practitioner, instead of her regular doctor, who questioned why more tests weren't ordered.
"She asked me if anyone had ever looked into anything other than testing my blood," Carlson said, and the two agreed she should see a hemotologist. After trying to bring her iron levels up with no affect, Carlson was sent for a colonoscopy. "Just as a baseline," she said.
The scope discovered a tumor blocking nearly 100 percent of her upper colon. A biopsy determined it was malignant.
Carlson had no symptoms indicating a problem other than lack of energy. Although there was a history of colon cancer in her family, she wasn't scheduled to begin routine screenings until age 50. She was 40 at the time of her diagnosis.
Surgeons at Moffitt Cancer Center believed the tumor had been inside Carlson's colon for two years, suggesting it was slow-growing. As a precaution, they also removed her ovaries. A second surgery removed spots on her liver and a final surgery removed parts of a lung.
After the three surgeries and chemotherapy, Carldon's prognosis is good. The cancer has not spread, and she is being monitored regularly for any signs of recurrence.
Her experience has empowered her to get her story out because she believes the colonoscopy saved her life.
Colorectal cancer, referred to commonly as colon cancer, affects men and women and is considered the second leading cancer killer in the United States. According to the Mayo Clinic, regular screenings can save lives by discovering pre-cancerous polyps in the colon or rectum and removing them before they become deadly.
Risk factors for colon cancer include:
- Age: most colon cancers are diagnosed in those over 50.
- Race: Blacks are at a greater risk than people of other races.
- Personal or family history of colorectal cancers or polyps.
- Inflammatory intestinal conditions including diseases of the colon, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, increase the risk.
- Genetic syndromes including familial adenomatous polyposis and hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer, also known as Lynch syndrome.
- Low fiber, high fat diet.
Radiation therapy for cancer directed at the abdomen can increase the risk of colon cancer.
Carlson had none of these with the exception of a family history of colon cancer and pre-cancerous polyps. Even then, it wasn't recommended she begin annual screenings until age 50.
"My doctors saw normal blood work and never pushed the colonoscopy," Carlson said. She now cautions skepticism when symptoms continue without obvious cause.
Carlson is a strong advocate for the maintenance drug Avastin, which she takes as a targeted cancer treatment. "It is the miracle drug," she said. Carlson has become a spokesperson for Avastin, delivering hard proof that hope for survival from colon cancer -- even stage 4 -- is possible.
Carlson's story inspires hope on many levels. The mother of two boys, 23-year old Ryan, a Hernando High and Florida State graduate; and 11-year old Jack, is a fighter with a new perspective on the value of life.
She never thought colon cancer would kill her. But the journey that made her a cancer survivor helped her see every moment with her family as a gift.
She and her husband, Carey, also a Hernando High alumnus, had hoped to add another child to their family. But she doesn't dwell on what could have been.
A motivator in high school as she helped cheer Leopard teams to victories, Carlson is no less a strong motivator today. Her story might inspire another life-saving colonoscopy or contribute to medical advances.
Now in remission, Carlson's journey is propelled by a responsibility to deliver her message of hope.