Never Give Up Hope

An afternoon of horseback riding was Melissa Stammen’s first tip that something was wrong. She felt unusually sore immediately after, and then began to notice abnormalities with bowel movements.

Loved ones were quick to console Melissa, saying her symptoms were normal—probably caused by a minor irritation or hemorrhoids—nothing to worry about.

Melissa remained disconcerted, however. She had recently turned 50, and therefore asked her primary care physician to schedule a routine colonoscopy. Melissa’s intuition-led decision most likely saved her life.

July 24, 2017 was a surreal day. Melissa remembers waking up from the colonoscopy—still dazed from the anesthesia—and being taken into a consultation room.

“I thought I had hemorrhoids or a fissure, but the doctors were showing me images of what they said was a cancerous colorectal tumor,” said Melissa. “I was groggy, and I thought to myself, ‘Am I still asleep? This can’t be happening.’”

Melissa was referred to Janice Rafferty, MD, chief of the UC Health Division of Colon and Rectal Surgery and professor of surgery for the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

“Within 20 minutes of meeting Dr. Rafferty, I trusted her with my entire care plan,” said Melissa. “She treated me with such kindness and compassion, gave me a sense of peace and put me in touch with the best doctors for my needs. She took care of everything.”

Five weeks of radiation and chemotherapy treatments were added to Melissa’s already-full schedule working in human resources at a Dayton-area school. Throughout her treatment, she never missed a day of work.

“I knew I had to get through it, so I set my mind to getting the treatments done, just like anything else,” she said. “I decided that, even though I had cancer, cancer didn’t have me—I wasn’t going to let it win, and I would do whatever it took to live a normal life.”

Melissa received chemotherapy via a small, portable infusion bag that she wore five days a week. She adjusted her working hours so her husband, Brett, could drive her to her radiation treatments at UC Health’s Radiotherapy Center located on the UC Health West Chester Campus.

Jordan Kharofa, MD, radiation oncologist at the UC Health Radiotherapy Center and assistant professor of radiation oncology for the UC College of Medicine, led Melissa’s treatment plan. He was inspired by her outlook.

“Melissa was extremely optimistic no matter how difficult her treatments were—she approached it all with a level of enthusiasm that was infectious to everyone around her,” Dr. Kharofa said.

“Cancer just wasn’t on my agenda,” Melissa said. “In hindsight, though, I’m kind of amazed at myself sometimes.”

After chemotherapy and radiation treatment, she took an eight-week break to let her body recover. The next step during a cancer journey is typically surgery; however, treatment was so successful that the tumor was entirely eradicated.

“It’s what we hope for every patient with a colorectal cancer diagnosis,” said Dr. Rafferty. “Melissa had a multidisciplinary treatment team reviewing her case, carefully planning her course and delivering therapy before she ever made it to the operating room. Fortunately, she had complete tumor regression.”

Complete tumor regression occurs in approximately one in five patients, said Dr. Kharofa.

“It improves the long-term local control, and as Melissa is in remission, the risk of tumor recurrence is decreased.”

To improve her long-term outcome, Dr. Rafferty performed a low anterior resection—a surgical procedure that involves removing the affected portion of the intestine.

Melissa quickly recovered from the surgery and is in remission. She hopes that sharing her story will illustrate the importance of talking to your doctor as soon as you notice abnormalities in your health. She also has a message for anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer:

“Follow your doctors’ orders and keep living your life. Don’t let it get you down. If you allow cancer to become all-consuming in your life, it will absolutely take over,” said Melissa. “Never give up hope!”

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