That’s how Virginia Cortinas describes her emotions when she was first told she had colorectal cancer in fall 2016. It was the diagnosis she feared, but had been trying to avoid.
“I knew there was something wrong, but I ignored it. I was planning a trip to Florida for a vacation with my son and his family and didn’t want to cancel it,” she said. “I didn’t tell my family what was going on, I would just say I wasn’t feeling good. I didn’t want to burden them.”
Following an irregular pelvic exam, CT scan and a biopsy of a mass, Cortinas was officially diagnosed with stage 3C colorectal cancer, meaning the cancer had spread to nearby organs and possibly to her lymph nodes as well.
“When dealing with a diagnosis like Virginia’s, it’s important to take a multidisciplinary approach. At Memorial Hermann, each case goes before our multidisciplinary tumor board where a team of cancer specialists discusses the specifics of the case and recommends a treatment plan,” said Julie Rowe, MD, an oncologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann Cancer Center-Texas Medical Center.
Combining Cancer Treatment Therapies for Maximum Impact
In Cortinas’ case, it was recommended she undergo chemoradiation, a combination of chemotherapy and radiation, to try and shrink the tumor before surgery.
“In most cases we have two options: administer chemotherapy first and then do the chemoradiation or vice versa. In Mrs. Cortinas’ case, doing the chemoradiation first helped to alleviate her pain and bleeding,” said Mi Kyung (Micki) Ko, MD, a radiation oncologist affiliated with the Memorial Hermann Cancer Center-Northeast.
Cortinas finished chemoradiation in five-and-a-half weeks. Even before she finished chemoradiation, she no longer needed pain medication and her cancer was downgraded to stage 2. In January 2017, Cortinas underwent surgery to remove the tumor as well as some nearby lymph nodes, which tested negative for signs of cancer. After allowing time to heal, Cortinas underwent additional rounds of chemotherapy, a combination of agents known to be effective against colon and rectal cancer.
“My faith and my family are what got me through it. My grandkids would make me get well cards and check on me. I kept praying and trusting in God to get me through it. I knew he was with me, my family was with me, and all the love and support I received is what kept me positive,” Cortinas said.
Cortinas said it also helped that she felt very confident and supported by the team of physicians caring for her.
“From the moment of my diagnosis, I felt taken care of. Doors opened, I had appointments scheduled quickly, and the whole process was seamless. It felt like I was lifted up by angels,” she said.
Taking a Team Approach to Defeat Cancer
Physicians say the battle against cancer can be multi-faceted, and understand that it can be overwhelming for patients.
“Physicians affiliated with Memorial Hermann do a great job of working together as a team,” Dr. Ko said. “It’s common for medical care to become fragmented when many doctors are involved in a case. We use a team-based approach in which the radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, gynecologic oncologist, pathologist and oncology nurse navigator come together to formulate the best treatment option.”
Cortinas finished her chemotherapy in July 2017.
Today She’s Cancer Free
“With rectal cancer, treatment is always a lengthy process,” Dr. Rowe said. “But the short story is that despite having a large tumor, Mrs. Cortinas responded well with no metastasis. Today she is NED – no evidence of disease.”
It’s an outcome Cortinas credits to her hardworking team.
“I can’t give them enough accolades, not just the doctors, but the nurses and especially Oncology Nurse Navigator Carol Kirton. She explained everything and throughout it all I felt comfortable and personally cared for. I liked that they met regularly to discuss my case and that they work together as a team. They had all the resources they needed at their fingertips. I thank God for them every day,” Cortinas said.
Memorial Hermann Cancer Centers provide the entire continuum of cancer care, including screening, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation. Learn more about colorectal cancer or schedule a colon cancer screening.