Colon Cancer Survivor
- Diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer at age 41
- Treated with surgery, chemotherapy and radio frequency ablation
- In remission—no detectable sign of disease
Anita Mitchell is a busy mother to three children. Like most parents during the holidays, she had little time to think about herself. And like most moms, it took an extraordinary event to get her to pay attention to symptoms that had been bothering her for quite a while.
“Late in 2004, I wasn’t feeling great. I’d had gastrointestinal (GI) pain and diarrhea nearly every morning and an occasional bloody stool.”
She attributed her GI trouble to drinking coffee, even though she drank it decaffeinated. And when Anita saw her doctor, she told her it was most likely hemorrhoids. Two weeks later, in November, she went in for her annual physical, “and my doctor didn’t remember that I’d been there two weeks before,” Anita says. “She wasn’t reading her notes, but I figured that just meant she wasn’t worried about my symptoms, so I didn’t worry either.”
Anita had continued discomfort from Thanksgiving through December and didn't feel well at all. She pushed through the hustle and bustle that comes with the busy Christmas season. However, in January she had a particularly "bad episode," as she calls it, and saw a lot of blood in the toilet.
“I looked in my medical dictionary and saw that I could have diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, or colon cancer,” Anita says, “so I called my mom to confirm what type of cancer my father had died of when I was 16 and he was 45. She said it was colon cancer.”
Anita had just turned 41 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in February 2005. She had cancer in her colon that had already metastasized and she had seven tumors on her liver that were too large and too spread out to remove surgically.
On Feb. 15, Dr. Mika Sinanan, professor of surgery at UW Medical Center removed a foot and a half of Anita’s colon and 14 lymph nodes—six of which had cancer, and one of Anita’s ovaries. A month later, Anita saw her medical oncologist, Dr. Sam Whiting, at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. They discussed how best to approach Anita's metastatic cancer, focusing on the option for sequencing several therapies to possibly cure her typically incurable cancer.
Her treatment began on March 29, with chemotherapy every other week to attack her liver tumors and any other cancer cells that could have been in her body.
“My cancer responded very well to the chemotherapy,” Anita says. “My tumors were shrinking and in August I was able to have a liver resection.” Dr. Raymond Yeung, professor of surgery at UW Medical Center, performed this procedure. Three of the tumors were surgically removed; the others he treated with radio frequency ablation, a technique using a special type of electrical energy (radiofrequency) to heat and kill tumor tissue.
It was a long 10 days before Anita could go home, and she later returned to UW Medical Center because she was having difficulty recovering from surgery and keeping food down. By late September, she was able to restart her chemotherapy treatments, and began receiving another powerful drug combination designed to treat and eliminate any residual cancer that was left behind. Two months of this aggressive treatment were administered before side effects and fatigue became limiting to Anita's quality of life.
"At this point, there was no cancer detectable in Anita by even the most sophisticated tests," Dr. Whiting says.
Whiting cut back on treatment then to a single drug with minimal side effects hoping to prevent the regrowth of cancer than might still be alive. The last treatment continued for a little over a year before being halted.
"Anita is now off of all cancer-directed therapy," Dr. Whiting says, "and is being followed carefully for cancer recurrence. She remains free of detectable disease."
Because of her family history, Anita says she now knows she should have been screened when she was in her early 30s. Since her colon cancer diagnosis, Anita has become an advocate for early detection – from knowing your family history to promoting early screenings for those at risk. She has joined support groups and is a member of the colon cancer task force for Washington’s Comprehensive Cancer Control Partnership Program. She is also a member of the Colon Cancer Alliance, where she is part of their Buddy Program to help other people diagnosed with colon cancer.
In 2007, her photo was featured alongside another colon cancer survivor as part of a calendar used to raise money for colon cancer awareness. And if that weren’t enough, Anita and Dr. Whiting were featured in a program on HealthTalk.com about her diagnosis and the treatment that brought her cancer into remission.
“The doctors are outstanding at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and UW Medical Center,” Anita says. “When I was diagnosed, several of my friends, who are nurses, told me there was only one place for me to go, and that was SCCA.”
Anita was instrumental in getting March 8th designated as Dress In Blue Day for Colon Cancer Awareness Day in Seattle, in honor of her friend Carmen Mitchell (no family relation) who died of colon cancer on that day in 2006. And now it's gone national and international and is held the first Friday in March.
She is a member of the Washington Comprehensive Colon Cancer Task Force, Washington State Survivorship, and the End of Life and Palliative Care Committee. Anita is also a buddy for Colon Cancer Alliance and a speaker for medical students at the UW upon request.
She has been recognized for her work by several organizations. She received the Laurel of Advocacy from the Prevent Cancer Foundation; a Leadership Award from Colon Cancer Alliance; Gilda’s Club Snapshot of Survival; and Seattle Rotary’s Self Above Service Award.
Anita is also active with STARS (Support, Treatment, Awareness, Resources, and Screening), which has a Peer-to-Peer Living with Colorectal Cancer Support Group that meets the second Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. at SCCA House .
"I am available to talk to new people one-on-one if that is more comfortable for them. I can be contacted through our website, ColonStars.org," Anita says.