Looking at Gina Davis, you would never imagine the challenges she faced in the past four years.
But the determination of this youthful-looking 41-year-old cancer survivor has enabled her to reach out to others – urging people to become more aware of their health, more receptive to health screenings and more open to seeking medical help.
March is National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, a great time for men and women to consider their risk for cancers of the colon and rectum, she said.
Months ago, Davis was instrumental in organizing a support group for people with ostomies – like her. Her "lifelong friend," as Davis calls the device, has allowed her to remain active with family and friends, and in the community. An ostomy is a surgically created opening in the body for the discharge of body wastes.
The mother of two daughters, whose husband died several years ago, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age of 37. "I was the youngest patient my doctor ever had to tell," said the licensed practical nurse.
Following surgery in July 2007 at the Adena Medical Center, "I was told I was Stage 1, which was very good. There was a 90 percent chance of never having another resection or complications."
But months later, some of her earlier symptoms returned. Another colonoscopy was done, another tumor was found and her surgeon warned she may need a colostomy.
Fortunately, the surgery went well and a colostomy was not needed. Like an ostomy, a colostomy is an opening in the body, but specifically in the colon, or large intestine.
While undergoing chemotherapy following the surgery, a CT scan revealed nodules in her lungs. Although they were shrinking with the help of chemotherapy, she was experiencing troubling side effects. Eventually, the chemo was stopped and she underwent radiation therapy at Adena.
In July 2009, after developing a persistent cough and runny nose, tests revealed the lung nodules were present again and growing. Dr. Ralph Roach, a medical oncologist at Adena, referred Davis to Ohio State University, hoping she might be eligible for a clinical trial and the use of new drugs still in the experimental stage. Unfortunately, no such trials were available.
At the same time, she was dealing with the after-effects of two colorectal surgeries. "I was fighting a losing battle because I was constantly trying to get to the bathroom on time and I couldn't do it. And going to the store was emotionally a wreck because I had to wear an adult diaper."
In April 2010, she agreed to have a colostomy – something she had fought so hard against. There was no alternative, she said. "The incontinence was unreal and the problem was taking an emotional toll on me and my kids."
The colostomy went smoothly, but a small bowel obstruction meant another surgery – her fourth abdominal surgery in three years. And because of the extent of the obstruction, the colostomy that Davis hoped would be temporary, became a permanent part of her life.
Today, rather than dwell on her problems, she has redirected her efforts. She speaks to groups about the importance of cancer screening and treatment, and is trying to enlist more people in the Ostomy Support Group sponsored by Adena.
"There's more than just me who have questions and are looking for answers," she said.
(The Adena Ostomy Support Group provides education, information, support and advocacy for people with ostomies, as well as opportunities to share experiences and learn from others. The group meets from 6 to 8 p.m. the second Thursday of every month in Adena Room of the Adena Medical Center. To register, or for more information, contact Tammy McManus at 740-779-7240.)