By the time I was five, cancer was already a familiar word. My dad had colon cancer. He was 45. At that time I had no way of knowing how intimate my relationship with cancer would be. My dad went on to have three more separate episodes of cancer. Colon cancer again, prostate cancer, and kidney cancer. Not to be left out, my mom later developed breast cancer. Thankfully, both of my parents are still alive. Healthy, active, and strong.
Genetics: Looking for Answers in DNA
Around the same time that my dad dealt with his fourth bout of cancer, a close friend finished a masters degree in genetic counseling. He advised that my dad undergo testing for genetic mutations. He explained the reasons for having so many cancers throughout his life could lie in his DNA. Here, I had always thought he just had bad luck.
At the time, I was 28, about to leave the country to work in England for a year. I had little interest in the thought of someone scrutinizing over my family’s DNA looking for answers. A year went by. My friend was now adamant. Genetic testing was critical for my father — and for me, too. He explained that if we found a genetic mutation it could be hereditary, impacting me and future generations of Mercurios.
A month later, my dad received a diagnosis of Lynch syndrome. This inherited cancer syndrome is associated with a genetic predisposition to different cancer types. This meant he had a higher risk for certain cancers. It also meant that I had a 50 percent chance of inheriting the mutation. A few months later, I learned that I also had Lynch syndrome.
It is interesting to look back on my family’s individual experience with this news. Without speaking for him, I believe my dad felt a sense of explanation, validation, maybe even relief. The diagnosis finally explained why a healthy, active man spent a good part of his life with cancer. As for me — I got the wind knocked out of me. I desperately searched for air. I closely witnessed how cancer had impacted my dad, me, and our family. Now that felt like foreshadowing into my own future.
Eventually, I embraced the news and rolled on with this new chapter of my life. I became educated and empowered, realizing that this piece of newly acquired information would probably one day save my life. I found doctors, surgeons, and a genetic counselor. Knowing I was at a high risk for cancer, I scheduled regular colonoscopies, endoscopies, ultrasounds of my uterus and ovaries, occasional biopsies, regular skin checks with a dermatologist, and tests to rule out issues with my bladder and kidneys. I was on top of it and felt in charge. All of this screening would lead to prevention right? While at times it felt like a burden, I knew it was one of the most important things I could do for myself.
Fast Forward Seven Years
I was 36 years old and life felt pretty sweet. I fell in love with an amazing man named Matt and our beautiful daughter Hazel had just turned one. It was an exhausting, but exhilarating time in our lives. Three weeks later, during a routine colonoscopy, I found out I had colon cancer. BAM. Just like that, life felt very different.
I won’t go into the lengthy details of what followed. The short version is that I had a large part of my colon removed, some minor complications post surgery, and a roughly six-month recovery. There were some scary, difficult times. I have never felt more vulnerable. While not a complete shock, I didn’t expect a cancer diagnosis almost 10 years earlier than my dad’s first experience.
The beauty of my story is that I received my diagnosis early. I say with 100 percent confidence that genetic testing and routine screening saved my life. Had I not known I had Lynch Syndrome, I wouldn’t have had a colonoscopy for another four years — or until I started showing symptoms. I reckon to guess that at that point, cancer would have already had its way with me.
What Lies Ahead
I just had a birthday last month and turned 37. My one-year post cancer follow-up followed. I know there are many more tests and possible hurdles that will come, but this is just the fabric that now makes up a piece of my life.
Shannon lives in Stowe, Vermont, with her husband, daughter, and two dogs. She works as a registered nurse and spends most of her free time playing in the outdoors. Shannon is a colon cancer survivor and feels a tremendous amount of gratitude for each and every day.