Tristana Vásquez: Increasing Awareness of Colorectal Cancer among Hispanics in Puerto Rico
I was only 38 when I was diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer in 2016. Thanks to surgery, chemotherapy, and lots of self-care, I am blessed to be alive and without evidence of disease today. I enjoy life as much as I can; I recently got married and I’m writing a book to share how a cancer diagnosis and its treatment can impact the lives of patients and caregivers, and how gratefulness, hope, and active involvement in all this process create a more positive environment and better outcomes and quality of life. Although I am able to lead a very happy and productive life, the disease and its treatment have left me easily fatigued and in constant pain; this is one of the reasons I am sharing my story. Increasing awareness of the need for more research targeted to improving the quality of life for cancer survivors is one of the main goals of my advocacy efforts.
I was diagnosed with colon cancer in April 2016. I went to the emergency room (ER) because I had been in extreme pain for two weeks. I had postponed going to the doctor because of work, looking after the children, and all the other things I prioritized in my life. Since the pain didn’t stop, I was worried I had appendicitis. In the ER an MRI showed a mass in my abdomen. I was admitted to the hospital, and a colonoscopy and biopsy a few days later showed that the mass was colon cancer.
My initial reaction was absolute shock. I was completely lost. But after a few days, I realized that the diagnosis explained the abdominal pain and general discomfort I had been suffering for more than 8 years, and I felt relief to finally have an answer. During that time, I had also been experiencing bloating, but the doctors believed it was related to gynecological issues. Despite these symptoms, none of the doctors I visited during those 8 years ordered me a colonoscopy. As a result of my experiences I am passionate about educating my community about the importance of listening to your body, going to the doctor when you need to, and not stopping to seek care until you have an answer.
Very soon after the initial diagnosis, which was stage I, I had surgery. But three months later, a PET scan revealed the cancer had spread to my lung. It was the first time I realized that I might not make it. I was devastated.
Fortunately, I was able to have surgery to remove the tumor in my lung. This was important for me because I just wanted to get the cancer cells out of my body. The surgery was followed by six cycles of a chemotherapy regimen called FOLFOX. The treatment was hard; there were days when I did not know if I would die of cancer or because of the treatment.
During chemotherapy, I made sure I ate healthily, exercised, rested, meditated, and prayed. I believe that taking the best care of my body and my mind gave me the best chance of the treatment working successfully.
I give thanks every day that I’m alive. I enjoy my life, but it is very different to the one I had before cancer. I get tired after only five hours of work and I’m always in pain. The long-term effects on me and my family are immense. More and more people are surviving cancer, and we need more research aimed at helping improve our quality of life.
After my treatment was over, my doctors recommended that I undergo genetic testing because I was diagnosed with colon cancer at such a young age and because my father had died from pancreatic cancer and my aunt had died from stomach cancer. I learned that I inherited a genetic mutation that causes a condition called MAP syndrome. People with this condition often develop lots of polyps [abnormal tissue growths] in their colon, which increases their risk of colon cancer. I am also participating in an observational clinical trial that is investigating inherited causes of colorectal cancer in Hispanics living in Puerto Rico.
Advocacy has been an important part of my experience with cancer. First, I had to advocate for myself, choosing a doctor and care team who understood me and taking care of myself. After I completed my treatment, I began serving as an advocate to patients newly diagnosed with cancer. I help them navigate the experience and provide support when they need it. More recently, I have begun being more broadly active in the Hispanic community here in Puerto Rico, increasing awareness about colorectal cancer and how screening can save lives.