Cancer

Updated 24 June 2016

From cancer to giving birth

Maria Ghelakis was just 30 years old when she was diagnosed with stage-four colorectal cancer.

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This in itself is considered a rare occurrence because colorectal cancer is usually a disease that affects people over the age of 50. But despite her diagnosis, Maria is now pregnant with her first child and showing us all that cancer can be beaten.

Just before her 30th birthday, Maria’s life was on the fast track. She was working hard, building her career and preparing to move to Paris. For immigration purposes, she was required to go for a medical check-up. Since Maria had been experiencing nagging symptoms, she opted to get a colonoscopy done, along with the other tests she needed to take. It was on her way to the airport that Maria got the call that would change her life – she had stage-four colon cancer and it had spread to her liver.

Change in bowel habits

Although Maria had been experiencing textbook symptoms for at least seven years prior to her final diagnosis, her doctors never considered testing her for colorectal cancer because of her age. Some of the most common symptoms include a change in bowel habits, blood in the stool and prolonged or on-going pain and discomfort, all of which Maria had experienced prior to her diagnosis.

When she found out she had colorectal cancer and that it was so far along, she was angry it hadn’t been picked up sooner. She was also scared about the treatment she would have to undergo and whether she would come out the other side.

“Everyone has bad stories about cancer and cancer treatment,” she says. But the thing that got her prepared and ready to face the disease head-on was knowing the facts. Maria researched as much as she could about the type of cancer she had and this enabled her to be pro-active in her treatment and recovery process.

Chemotherapy

The cancer was so far along that Maria had to undergo treatment immediately. The day after hearing her diagnosis, she went for a colectomy with anastomosis. Once she had recovered, she was sent for a PET scan. It was then that her doctors realised the cancer on her liver was much worse than originally thought.

After seeing oncologists and reading up about treatment options, Maria underwent six months of chemotherapy and biological therapy. It was successful and she has been in the clear for 18 months now.

Maria is no stranger when it comes to doctors and hospitals. Prior to her cancer diagnosis, she and her husband, Chris, had been trying to get pregnant. It turned out that she had stage-three endometriosis, which she was treated for. They later tried artificial fertilisation, but all their attempts were unsuccessful.

Maria says her and Chris weren’t thinking of trying again. “If we had any chance before the cancer, we had no chance at all now. I was only in my first year of remission when we discovered that in October 2012 I was pregnant,” says Maria. “Chemotherapy took a toll on my body and I still hadn’t fully recovered yet, so a lot could still go wrong. This was why I was so hesitant about becoming emotionally attached to the idea of having a baby.”


'My body produced something beautiful'

But despite these early worries, Maria is healthy and scans show that her baby is doing well. “The biggest change with pregnancy was how I see my body. For years it only produced tumours. For a change, it has produced something beautiful and useful; not something that’s evil and wanting to kill you. It made a child.”

Maria’s experience with colorectal cancer at such a young age has motivated her to speak up and create awareness about this disease. Listening to what your body is trying to tell you, and making sure you go for your check-ups will help you catch cancer before it’s untreatable. Maria knew something was wrong and although it took her doctors a while to diagnose her, she was persistent and this paid off.

“Life can end so quickly so it’s important to take care of yourself, listen to what your body is telling you and do everything in moderation,” she asserts. With this in mind, Maria has lent her support and voice to the Be Cancer Aware colorectal cancer campaign “Ignoring a gut feeling?” and encourages people to get tested early if they think there might be a problem.

“Just because you’re sick, it doesn’t mean you have less right to live tomorrow. You can, sick or healthy, walk across the street and be knocked over by a car. Just go on with the next day because it’s just one day closer to a cure for cancer,” says Maria.

About Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month takes place in March and is observed by South Africans in April. Patients are often ashamed to talk about their diagnosis due to the region of the cancer and for this reason Be Cancer Aware launched the “Ignoring a gut feeling?” campaign in 2009. This campaign is aimed at increasing awareness and encouraging regular screenings.

About colorectal cancer


Colorectal cancer is cancer of the bowel, colon and rectum and is the 4th most common cancer in South Africa . This slow growing cancer can be present for up to five years before showing symptoms . Risk factors include poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity, family history of colorectal cancer and age .
The chances of being diagnosed with colorectal cancer increases after the age of 50 and both men and women should be screened. That being said, it can affect anyone of any age, gender and social or economic status.

Symptoms of colorectal cancer include a change in bowel habit that lasts for more than a few weeks; blood in the stool or rectal bleeding; cramps; prolonged or on-going pain and discomfort in the abdominal area during, before or after bowel movement; unexplained weight loss; weakness, fatigue or exhaustion and the feeling of not being able to empty your bowel properly.

Colorectal cancer can be treated with four types of treatments – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and biological therapy. Surgery is the most common treatment for all stages of colorectal cancer. Radiation is used to kill the cancer cells or stop them from growing. Chemotherapy forms one of the most widely used treatments and has the ability to shrink tumours. Finally, biological therapy is also used to treat cancer. This type of therapy uses the immune system to help fight a specific type of cancer. It identifies and attacks specific cancer cells without harming normal cells, and this is why it is also referred to as targeted therapy.

Some types of biological medicine can also prevent blood vessels from reaching the tumour, which starves the tumour and causes it to stop growing and shrink. This particular type of treatment is referred to as tumour starving therapy.

About Be Cancer Aware

Be Cancer Aware is a reliable source of information for those newly diagnosed with cancer. Together with resources such as a website, newsletter, and social media, Be Cancer Aware hopes to educate, support and encourage patients with appropriate information and resources.

On the Be Cancer Awareness website, you’ll find information, expert opinions, inspirational stories from patients and survivors and the latest news of local cancer activities.
Be Cancer Aware aim’s to offer quality cancer awareness and educational information to South Africans.

Awareness of cancer is vital in the fight to reduce the burden of the disease and improve the lives of patients.

BCA is supported by Roche Products (Pty) Ltd in the interest of cancer education and awareness.

- (Be Cancer Aware press release)

 

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