BY LIZZY SMITH In this photo is Mandy (in white to the far left, and me in the green striped dress next to her). Little did we know that some 25 years later, we would be diagnosed with cancer just weeks apart, Mandy with stage IV colon cancer, and me with stage IIIa multiple myeloma. There are so many things that I really hate about cancer but one of my least favorite is fear of everything that happens to my body. Thanks to myeloma, I'm the most paranoid person on the planet when it comes to my health. If I feel sick to my tummy, is it stomach cancer? A headache, brain cancer? A nagging cough, lung cancer? Which brings me to the story of Mandy and my first-ever colonoscopy at the age of 47. Mandy and I were great friends. We grew up together in high school and we both loved to ski. She had a season ski locker at Mammoth Mountain (California), we both had season ski passes, and we spent countless days driving up to Mammoth to hit the slopes, check out the cute guys, and then going to parties and barbeques afterwards with many of the ski instructors we knew. For my high school graduation, my mom took me, Mandy, and two other friends to Hawaii. Fast forward to January 2012 when I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. I told very few people I had cancer. I didn't want to see fear or pity in anyone's eyes. I was going to beat my cancer, I was on a mission, and no one was going to rattle that resolve. Just weeks later, Mandy took the opposite approach. I was perusing Facebook and there she was, announcing that she had just been diagnosed with Stage IV color cancer that had spread to her lung and hip. After the shock wore off and I wiped away a few tears, I called her. I told her that I, too, had just been diagnosed with cancer and we could support each other during chemo and whatever else we needed to endure. Over the next two years, Mandy and I would text each other. One day, she asked if I would like to plan a fun trip with our daughters for the upcoming Spring, like Disneyworld or the Bahamas. I was all in. But that trip never happened. She past away in June 2014 at the age of 43, leaving behind a husband and two young daughters. Her advice: get a colonoscopy. Since then, I've always had that in the back of my head. Colonoscopy. But I wasn't 50 years old yet. I didn't have risk factors (though I had no risk factors for myeloma either and I got it anyway). And who wants to have that painful and awful test. But I felt I owed it to Mandy's memory, and my own health and peace of mind so I finally took the plunge and scheduled it. And while I was at it, I scheduled my mammogram, annual pap, and a skin cancer screening. I would have added a complete blood count panel (a simple blood test) but since I get those every other week as part of my maintenance therapy, I was covered there. I was nervous about my colonoscopy but I should not have been. It was one of the most easiest and painless procedures. The work-up wasn't my favorite. The day prior, I had to start ingesting loads of laxatives and dissolving Miralax in Gatorade (I detest Gatorade and wanted to puke). I made sure that all day long I was never too far from a toilet. I had to stop taking iron pills and blood thinners many days before the procedure, and I couldn't drink any water or eat food starting at midnight the night before. And I could only have a clear liquid-type diet for an entire day. On the day of my test, I showed up at Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, put on a pretty hospital gown, got an IV to knock me out, and the next thing I knew, I was floating off into Nap-land. And then it seemed like seconds later, they were waking me up. All done. The doctor told me that he found a small polyp that he was sending off to biopsy but he was certain it wasn't cancer. Thirty minutes later, my dad and I were driving home. I was starving so we stopped for lunch. I didn't feel hung-over or groggy. No residual pain or discomfort at all. As you can imagine, getting cancer is a life changer. The best odds we have of beating a cancer is by catching it early. And especially as a single mom who has no great dad backup in the picture should something happen to me (my ex-husband abandoned the children post split), it's vital that I stay healthy and alive for them. When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was paralyzed by fear that I wouldn't be around to raise them and that my parents, already in their seventies, would need to do that. It made me fight even harder to get well. The bottom line: Speak with your doctor about what screenings are appropriate for you. Tell your doctor that you want an aggressive cancer screening. I keep thinking that if I had had a simple CBC (complete blood count) blood test many months earlier than I did, we would have found my cancer even earlier. When I was diagnosed, I was a Stage IIIa, which meant that it was advanced and aggressive, but I had no organ damage. Thank goodness we "accidentally" caught it when we did because many myeloma patients are diagnosed when their kidneys have failed, which makes them harder to treat. At least I was "healthy" and in great shape to handle the tough treatments. How many others could beat their cancer if only they had found it sooner? So that's my advice for today, and I speak from experience: Get those cancer screenings. Be well.
about the author
Lizzy Smith was diagnosed with myeloma in 2012 at age 44. Within days, she left her job, ended her marriage, moved, and entered treatment. "To the extent I'm able, I want to prove that despite life's biggest challenges, it is possible to survive and come out stronger than ever," she says.