There’s no sugarcoating it: A stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis at any age is scary. In your thirties, it’s downright traumatizing. Colleen Farrell felt the mental, emotional and physical trauma immediately after learning the news. Negative thoughts crept in often, but she refused to let them linger too long. Instead, facing her own mortality forced her to notice beauty in the small – even sometimes mundane or annoying – experiences in life.
“After this happened, you don’t take a single thing for granted,” she said. “I kept saying to myself, if I'm going to die, I'm going to die fighting. And I'm not going to die being miserable. I'm going to try to enjoy my life as I go down.”
After attempted surgery and other treatments had failed, her medical oncologist, Richard Dunne, M.D., had one more option to try: An immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda). It targets a particular cellular pathway that, when blocked, allows the immune system to go in and attack the cancer. The drug was the first to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration based on the biomarker it targets rather than the organ where the cancer began.
For Colleen, it worked – with speed. The tumor shrunk so quickly that it let up pressure on a blood vessel, causing severe rectal hemorrhaging. She says she nearly died because of the bleeding. Making it through that encouraged her to focus more on the positive details in life.
“You hear a bird chirp. You feel the sun. You still have lousy days. You still fight over petty stuff with your boyfriend, but you just taste life. You’re more active in your own life,” she says.
She also took felt more attuned to the kindness of others – from volunteers she didn’t even know who gave her a hug when she was upset to family members and friends. She won’t ever forget how they made her feel loved.
“No gesture is too small when somebody is going through something and we’re all mistaken if we think, ‘Oh it’s not important, if we don’t bother to drop a note or an email or a text,’” she says. “It doesn’t have to cost anything. That kindness just reminds you that you’re not alone.”
Beyond messages and the kindness of strangers, Colleen had a strong support team, too. Her sister and brother-in-law provided loyalty and laughter through the ups and downs. Her parents provided love and encouragement, too, although her mother died in 2016, adding more devastation to an already difficult time.
Connections proved ever important for Colleen through her diagnosis and treatment.
“Everybody’s interconnected in this. People tell me all the time how strong I am, how brave I am, how amazing I am. I’m humbled by that, but I did not do this alone,” she says. “All that credit goes to everybody around me.”
That includes her team of doctors and nurses at Wilmot.
“I can’t praise Wilmot enough,” she says. “This place is in my backyard and they’re doing lifesaving, incredible, compassionate work. It’s really a fantastic resource we have. I’m so glad to be here.”
Today, she’s no longer on immunotherapy and the cancer appears to have stabilized. She felt thrilled to return to work in the newsroom, starting a job at 13WHAM in fall 2018, not only because she loves her career, but also because of what going back to work symbolized.
“It’s a signal to me that I’m ‘normal.’ I wanted to be normal again,” she says. “I want to get a house. I want to have a family. I want to travel a little bit. I want to keep paying it forward for all the good things that have happened to me.”
Her first Christmas with cancer years ago, Colleen questioned whether it would be her last. It was a scary thought, but despite everything she’s been through, the support she’s received and the treatment from her team at Wilmot have helped her find a way forward.
“I don’t really have those thoughts anymore,” she says. “The road is lengthening for me, which is great, but I’m taking whatever I can get. Even the bad days.”