Last year, Laura Edwards, a wife, mom of three, and an Advanced Academics teacher at Norfolk Christian Schools in Hampton Roads, was faced with the difficult news that she had rectal cancer. She describes the reaction to her diagnosis, given her healthy and active lifestyle, as one of complete shock. Her journey has had its ups and down, but she has relied on her deep faith and unwavering family support to stay positive and hopeful. She shares her story to help encourage others to stay positive, get their screenings early and, for those who are facing cancer, to take advantage of the Sentara Wellness Beyond Cancer program.
My Cancer Journey
I was diagnosed with rectal cancer in January of 2020. After struggling with a cough I couldn’t get rid of, I was initially diagnosed with “walking pneumonia” in the fall of 2019, but after a CT scan, and several other tests, including a colonoscopy, my Sentara Surgery Specialists colorectal surgeon, Dr. John Sayles, realized I had rectal cancer that had metastasized to my lung. I quickly began chemotherapy in the hope of shrinking the tumors enough to become a candidate for surgery. My doctors at Sentara coordinated with Dr. Lee’s team at Virginia Oncology Associates, now conveniently located at the Sentara Brock Cancer Center, to ensure I received the treatments best suited for my diagnosis. Since the beginning, we have taken an aggressive approach to help me become a survivor. I completed eight rounds of chemotherapy at VOA and then had two major surgeries at Sentara Leigh Hospital in the summer of 2020. After another four rounds of chemotherapy, I had clear scans in December 2020.
Unfortunately, my cancer journey didn’t end there…
Later that month we found out my cancer had spread to my abdominal lining. This is when my doctors determined I was a good candidate for cytoreductive surgery (CRS) and hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) surgery. First, they would remove all visible tumors within my abdomen (CRS) and, immediately following, I would receive a heated chemotherapy solution (HIPEC) directly in my abdomen to kill any remaining tumor cells. Dr. Mary Beth Hughes with EVMS performed my surgery. Given the intensity of this procedure, I knew I would need to rely on my incredible physicians, faith and family to get through this next challenge, but we all understood this was my best path to being cancer-free. I had surgery on January 20th at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and spent 14 long days in the hospital recovering. Those days were very hard, but I received excellent care and am so grateful for the wonderful nurses and therapists by my side!
Wellness Beyond Cancer
It has been a tough journey but I want others to know you can continue to live well during, and beyond cancer. I have an amazing support system helping me keep fighting. My family and coworkers have made accommodations to support me, and my daughter even moved her family to be near me during treatments. And I can’t forget to mention my amazing ARMY of prayer warriors; friends, colleagues, neighbors and church family, all whom have been by my side every step of the way.
I also can’t say enough about the benefits I received from the Sentara Wellness Beyond Cancer program. The 6-week progressive program has been a great way for me to regain my stamina, strength and flexibility during my journey. I admit, I was a little nervous to get involved because I was recovering from lung surgery, but my fears were quickly alleviated when I realized that the instructors were very kind, knowledgeable, and adept at offering modifications for participants at different ability levels. One of the greatest benefits of the program is the multifaceted approach to therapy with the combination of yoga, fitness and relaxation techniques, giving you different ways to build your physical and mental health during and after treatment. Because of the pandemic, the program has been virtual, but the team hasn’t missed a beat. They have done a wonderful job helping us build relationships and a community over the screen. I feel stronger, more confident and am now part of a group of fellow cancer survivors working together, sharing in bravery and hope.
Since my diagnosis I have focused on living each day to the fullest and I have become an advocate for cancer prevention. I do my best to encourage all my friends and family to get screened for colorectal cancer at age 45 or earlier if they are having symptoms. I know too many people (myself included) who were diagnosed with colorectal cancer BEFORE their first colonoscopy at the previous recommended age of 50. I feel it is important to share my story so others may be able to avoid what my family and I faced these last 18 months.