By Kiran Dodeja Smith
Photography by Chanda
Don’t ignore the warning signs for
potentially serious medical problems.
One Charlotte mother opens up
about her fight with colon cancer.
We all have embarrassing issues we prefer not
to talk about. On some topics we’d rather shrink
to the size of a pea than let someone else in on
our secret. Sometimes we struggle silently with
issues we even hesitate to discuss with our part-
ner or our doctor, even when we know that it
may be the best decision. But in Susan Falco’s
case, talking has proved to be the best remedy for
herself and for helping others decide to speak up
and not ignore what could be a potentially seri-
Five years ago, Falco began experiencing bloat-
ing, gas, constipation and rectal bleeding – symp-
toms that were certainly embarrassing but at the
Sue same time very unsettling. She was a married,
34-year-old woman with no kids and no family
medical history that concerned her doctors. She
held a somewhat stressful position in software
training, which required a good bit of travel. But
work wasn’t something medical professionals
could link to her symptoms. Doctors prescribed a
colonoscopy and removed one small, precancer-
ous polyp. They suggested she repeat the proce-
dure again in five years and sent her on her way.
Following the colonoscopy, however, she contin-
ued to struggle with her symptoms. Over time,
they prevented her from living life as normal;
things she enjoyed doing, such as yoga and run-
ning, were getting near impossible. “I had tried
everything at this point,” Falco says. “I was on
different drugs, including Reglan, some to treat
colitis and some to treat Irritable Bowel
Syndrome (IBS). All had major side effects. Some
seemed to alter my mental state and others made
me sleep 12-15 hours a day. I even tried cutting
out all sugars, wheat, etc.” Nothing seemed to
Falco went off the drugs when she became preg-
nant with her first child and tried to manage as
best she could throughout the pregnancy, nursing
and another pregnancy less than two years later.
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is supposed to resume normal bowel function.
The choice was painstaking, she remembers. She spent
weeks researching various options, talking with other can-
cer patients and survivors and learning the challenges asso-
ciated with both alternatives.
The research indicated that it was not atypical for colon
cancer to spread to the lungs and/or liver, and that the pos-
sibility of the cancer returning was the greatest in the first
five years. Every choice she made was tied to survival sta-
tistics. In the end, Sue chose the surgical option. The
thought of having a temporary colostomy was less than
appealing, but a reoccurrence of the cancer would be devas-
“My first surgeon did a wonderful job recognizing the
problem and removing the tumor – but I really wanted to
After giving birth to her second daughter, she was still
experiencing similar bothersome symptoms. Once again,
however, she had no answers. One doctor presumed she
had gotten hemorrhoids from childbirth; another alleged
she simply had IBS.
“I left very frustrated,” she says. “I had severe bleeding
and knew I had to find another doctor fast.” She did just
that, and looking back, it was a blessing she continued her
quest for answers.
She saw her new doctor on Feb. 27, 2008. He did an exam
and immediately assumed a polyp was causing her symp-
toms. He ordered a colonoscopy on March 10, and the next
day she had surgery to remove a 3.6-mm polyp from her
rectum. Two days later, she was diagnosed with Stage I col-
“I was in shock and numb (upon finding out the news),”
Falco says. “I stayed in my bedroom for the next 12 hours.
The following morning, I got up and resumed my role as
Mommy with every ounce of courage … I was terrified to
see my kids, but they turned out to be an amazing blessing.
have another option at that point,” she says. With a goal of
Because they didn’t know what was going on, it seemed
finding a surgeon with the right mix of expertise and bed-
like a vacation from my troubles. Just a few hours after
side manor, she continued to research various doctors and
breakfast, I started my research on colorectal cancer, doc-
centers around the country. After travelling to Duke and
tors I needed to see and things I needed to get done.”
the Cleveland Clinic, she finally settled on the Mayo Clinic.
After giving her a diagnosis, doctors presented Falco with
“Finding the right surgical group is like dating,” Falco says.
two choices on how to proceed: chemotherapy coupled
“Everything needs to click.” The team at the Mayo Clinic
with radiation, or a second surgery. The surgery they rec-
seemed the perfect fit for Sue and they scheduled surgery
ommended was called a coloanal anastomosis – a two-stage
surgical procedure in which the colon is attached to the
Next, she and her husband packed up their two children,
anus after the rectum and surrounding lymph nodes are
3-year-old Mia and 1-year-old Ava, along with her parents
removed. In general terms, this is often referred to as a rad-
and her sister, and headed up to the Mayo Clinic in
ical resection. The rectum may be replaced with an internal
Rochester, Minn., for her surgery on May 21.
pouch formed from a portion of the colon, or else a direct
The day before surgery was jam-packed with meetings
connection from the colon to the anus is done. A tempo-
about the procedure. One of the tasks at hand was selecting
rary ileostomy, Falco learned, is part of the first surgery.
a site for the colostomy and training Falco and her husband
An ileostomy is a surgically created opening from the
for what was to come. “John, my hero, was awesome,”
small intestine to the abdominal surface. Intestinal waste
Falco says. “Having your husband in training to change
passes out of the ileostomy and is collected in an external
your colostomy bag sure puts the vow ‘in sickness and in
pouching system, known as a colostomy bag, which is
health’ to the test. He didn’t skip a beat.”
stuck to the skin. This temporary opening is created to
The surgical procedure lasted five hours. As she went
allow the newly created rectum to heal. Three months after
under the knife, she was under the impression that she
the first surgery, the ileostomy is reversed and the patient
would come out of the surgery with a temporary colostomy
bag – hopefully only to be used for three months. But she
awoke to find that her doctor was able to save just enough
cancer of her rectum for her to not require the colostomy. Two
days later, she got even better news: Her doctors informed
her she was cancer-free.
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Though doctors were able to rid her body of “I’ve helped people look for symptoms,”
the cancer, Falco is all too aware that it doesn’t Sue says. “Everyone is affected by cancer
mean she’s forever safe. Studies indicate that somehow (by way of a friend or relative);
there is a 10% chance the cancer will come therefore, most everyone is open to listen-
back within the first five years. Yet Falco exudes ing.” Whenever she has the chance, whether
a sense of confidence and passion about her it’s preschool or ballet, or through the works
experience. And she aims to help anyone avoid of her business, she aims to share her story,
a similar experience. to listen to others, and to help educate.
“I had struggled with (bladder) incontinence This past holiday season, Sue was browsing
over the years,” she says. “It’s a taboo at SouthPark Mall when she stopped
subject that people don’t like to talk at a kiosk featuring handmade orna-
about. I didn’t share anything about my ments. She was admiring one of the
symptoms (of what she later found to be pink “breast cancer survivor” decora-
cancer) for the first five years. After being tions and made a comment to the
diagnosed, I was angry for not being woman behind the desk that she
heard by the doctors. I wanted to share wished there was a blue one to signify
my story with others so that they don’t “colon cancer survivor.” To her aston-
end up in my shoes.” So after her diagno- ishment, the woman (and designer)
sis, Sue turned over a new leaf and began responded that she too had a blue
opening up to others. She quickly realized ornament – she was a seven-year sur-
the power of speech. vivor.
Determined to keep those close to her Jacqui was 32 with a 3-year-old child when
informed about her situation, she told the she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon can-
teachers and a few moms at her daughters’ cer, a finding so severe that the American
preschool of her condition. One of the moms Cancer Society associates a mere 8% sur-
immediately recalled another mom in a vival rate with it. But Jacqui beat the odds;
neighboring classroom who had fought a sim- she went on to make that 8% and now has
ilar battle. The two met and quickly hit it off. a happy, healthy, 10-year-old, a creative
While Mary-Karen Bierman’s story was sim- outlet in the form of her business, and
ilar to Falco’s, her road to recovery had been remains cancer-free.
even more arduous. The now-cancer-free Meeting these other women not only gave
patient was 39 years old – and 5 months’ Sue personal appreciation, it fueled her
pregnant with her first child – when she got her diagnosis. desire to continue with her quest of educating others. “None
“It was on my birthday,” Bierman recalls. “I went in for a of us had the risk factors that doctors typically look for,” she
flexible sigmoidoscopy and I personally saw the culprit on the says. The risk factors for colorectal cancer, according to the
screen. I went home and immediately went to the Internet – American Cancer Society, include a family history of colorec-
something I don’t recommend – and I just knew it was can- tal polyps or colorectal cancer, a personal history of inflam-
cer.” matory bowel disease or a family history of colorectal cancer.
Bill and Mary-Karen had miscarried their first baby and Though Sue and Mary-Karen each had a brother who had
were so happy to finally be over the hump of the first polyps in his 30s, they were otherwise textbook-free of the
trimester with the new baby. But after the findings, she wor- warning signs. Furthermore, 90% of people diagnosed with
ried for the health of her child. colorectal cancer are over age 50. Sue, Mary-Karen and Jacqui
Less than a month after the initial finding, she went to were relatively young – and that probably led to their symp-
University Hospital in Cleveland for a major surgery. Because toms being overlooked.
of the pregnancy, she didn’t have the option of having “It’s not something that’s easy to talk about,” Falco says.
chemotherapy and/or radiation; surgery was her only choice. “Trust me; I know this more than one can appreciate.” She
During the surgery, a neonatologist stayed in the room to tells a story of a friend who thought she had endometriosis at
hold her uterus in place. the age of 26. Her doctors wanted her to have a full GI
The next day, she was up and walking. She quickly recuper- workup, but she was too embarrassed to do so. She had two
ated and was back to her position as a lawyer within a children and ended up passing away at age 32 because her
month. She went on to have a normal, vaginal birth and had doctors never had a chance to find the true culprit: colorectal
another son two years later. She recently celebrated her five- cancer.
year anniversary of being cancer-free. “Everyone handles cancer in a different way. I chose to
Bierman’s success story seemed just what the doctor would look at it as an opportunity. I refuse to give any power to
order for Falco, when they met between her first and second cancer. I won’t let it bring me down or get me depressed,”
surgeries. Falco says.
“Just knowing that she had gotten through it, during a preg- Just seven months after her surgery, Falco ran in the “Jingle
nancy and all, and knowing that she’d gone on to have anoth- Jog,” a 5K race held Uptown. This March, she travelled to
er child was great peace of mind to me,” Falco says. Bierman Raleigh to run in the “Get Your Rear in Gear” 5K put on by
has appreciated the friendship equally. “We go to lunch a lot; the Colon Cancer Coalition and proudly came in third place
it’s definitely helped forge the friendship. It’s like sisters in for her age group. And though her one-year check was a com-
arms!” plete success (the tests showed she is cancer free!) she is still
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looking to devote as much of her energy to continuing the
fight. She met with Cindy Iverson, director of the Colon
Cancer Coalition immediately following her colonoscopy.
Looking forward, she is looking for sponsorship in Charlotte March was Colorectal
so that she can bring the Get Your Rear in Gear race to the
“I may be physically cancer free,” says Falco, “but mentally
Cancer Awareness month.
I will always battle this disease. I hope this article brings
awareness and hope to all who read it. Reaching out to oth- In light of this, we offer the following facts and figures
ers and helping educate them on the disease is paramount to provided by the Colon Cancer Coalition.
me and to my family. Colorectal cancer is one of the most
preventable cancers. One of my specific wishes is to enlight- What are the symptoms of colon or rectal cancer?
en others on their symptoms, which can often times be While early colon cancer often has no symptoms,
masked by childbirth, so that other young women are not sometimes symptoms do occur. Warning signs to
misdiagnosed.” look for include:
• Blood in or on the stool
Want to know more about colon cancer? • A change in bowel habits
Visit some of these Web sites for • Stools that are narrower than usual
more information: • General stomach discomfort or
www.fightcolorectalcancer.org frequent gas pains
www.getyourrearingear.com • Weight loss that occurs despite no change
www.ccalliance.org in daily habits or diet
If you’d like to personally speak with Sue • Chronic fatigue
Falco, feel free to send your contact informa-
tion to us at firstname.lastname@example.org; If you suffer from any of these warning signs, please
we will forward your information on to her. discuss them with your doctor immediately.
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