"After my diagnosis, I broke down crying and asked, why me? Then I had a revelation. Why NOT me? I was just a person. And every person I know is affected by cancer in some way." - Stephanie Jane Markham
When you think of someone with colon cancer, you probably don't imagine a young woman. Colon cancer is a disease for old men, right?
Wrong -- because that is the shocking diagnosis Stephanie Jane Markham received.
Fortunately, she is now cancer free (6 YEARS AS OF THIS WEEK) and living a healthy, happy life. In fact, Stephanie is currently expecting her first child, a baby boy, and can't wait to add mommy to her resume, right next to cancer survivor.
We are SO proud of you Stephanie! Thank you for sharing your story.
Every Ella: Hi Stephanie! Tell me about yourself.
Stephanie Jane Markham: I am an actress/director and singer songwriter, so I have my hat in a bunch of different rings. I grew up with our family splitting time between Scotland and Kentucky. My mother is Scottish and my first schooling was there. I spent the latter part of my childhood in Kentucky, where my dad is from. I went to drama school in New York and made the migration to Los Angeles to pursue film and TV.
You were diagnosed with colon cancer at a young age, which is very rare. What were your symptoms?
Aside from being really tired for about eight years, I had consistent bouts of IBS that never seemed to resolve. The tiredness was hard to connect as I had two jobs, was auditioning and going to beauty school to be an esthetician. I was also pretty bloated at times, but dismissed it as a sign of PMS, normal girl stuff. At the end, I had every flu and cold going around. My immune system was just struggling to cope. (Everyone, get your flu shot! You can really do damage to someone in that situation). Finally, I had a bloody stool and that's what led me to the proper diagnosis.
How were you diagnosed?
I saw a GI doctor. At first, he suspected I had IBS and internal hemorrhoids. He performed a sigmoidoscopy in his office, which is a simple procedure that can look at the bottom 10 inches of the colon (sigmoid). He found a large tumor 7 inches up. He then scheduled a colonoscopy and removed the tumor during that procedure.
Then I met with an oncologist and a surgeon and went through a CT scan and PET scan to check for other tumors. After that, a surgery was performed to remove a foot of my colon and several lymph nodes.
What thoughts ran through your head after your diagnosis?
Denial. I wanted to run away. To Hawaii, mainly. I didn't hear much of what my doctors said. My husband wrote all of it down, took notes… sort of stepped in as I checked out a bit. He was amazing!
A couple nights after my diagnosis, I broke down crying in my room and asked, why me? Then I had a revelation. Why NOT me? I was just a person. And every person I know is affected by cancer in some way. Mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins and uncles are all part of it and I'm no exception.
What treatment did you receive?
Just the surgery. After my colon and lymph nodes showed no signs of cancer, I did not require radiation or chemo. I had 3 month check ups and yearly CT scans for 5 years. Now I have doctor visits every 6 months.
Does colon cancer run in your family?
No. Not one person on either side.
You're now 6 years cancer free! How does that feel?
Feels good. After year 5, I could finally feel comfortable with the thought that I had beaten this thing. It still sits in the back of my mind, but I'm not afraid. It's just... I won't forget and I am determined to live healthy and do everything I can to prevent cancer from recurring, like eating right and exercising.
What have you learned from this experience?
To not sweat the small stuff. To appreciate the people in my life who love me. My people. You find out who your friends are. The wrong people, the ones you don't belong to, fall away. And that's alright. As it should be.
Is there ever any fear that it may come back?
Yes. Every day. I fight it. Like I said before, not so much afraid because I know that I am doing all I can to prevent it... and that gives me comfort.
What advice would you give young people with a family history of cancer?
Get screened! Don't be afraid to advocate for your own health. Don't be concerned with seeming like a hypochondriac, just do it. My mother in law is also a colon cancer survivor and my husband is screened with a simple colonoscopy every few years. He started young because that's what his mom's doctor advised. To be honest, I haven't been able to convince my younger brothers to get screened. It worries me. Still working on that one.
You're currently pregnant with your first child. CONGRATULATIONS! What are you looking forward to most about mommy life?
Letting go. It's funny, I hear so many warnings like, "You won't get sleep, you'll have no freedom, you won't be able to go out for dinner…" I know it's going to be tough, but I have perspective. I faced my own mortality and I'm still here. I am looking forward to looking out for my son's well being - that's a nice change!
What are your future plans/goals?
Sounds corny… but to be a good mom and wife. To wake up every day and just face my life in a positive way. I have made several goals for a career and some have come to be and some are still waiting. Sometimes I feel so discouraged. Hollywood is a labyrinth in some ways. Pits and peaks. That's life. Just trying to live for now. That's enough.
Name one woman who has inspired you.
My mother. She moved to another country, away from her family and friends and made a new life. She did it at a time without the internet, when plane tickets and phone calls were very expensive and hard to come by. She was brave. For love. She didn't always feel welcomed and she didn't always fit in, but she remains true to herself and has taught me what an independent woman looks like.
What advice would you give girls today?
Be yourself. No seriously. It's all that matters. If they don't like you for you, then screw 'em. It's better to have one amazing friend than a bunch of crappy ones. If you know someone who won't let you be you, say goodbye.