Pain and purpose from cancer
She lay in her bed, covers drawn to her chin, blinds pulled to block the sunlight. Wiping tears, Robin Henderson whispered: "This can't be happening."
A strong, independent mother of two and Air Force veteran, Robin had stage 4 colorectal cancer.
She was 30 years old.
Robin's story begins and ends, though, with the importance of early screening and the compassionate care she received from her team of providers at Gundersen Health System.
"Gundersen and my doctors saved my life," Robin says. "I wouldn't have made it without them."
Robin found blood in her stool in the fall of 2014 and assumed it was stress-related. She was healthy, and the thought of cancer never crossed her mind.
Fast forward five months to her first colonoscopy – a procedure Robin never thought she'd have so young – after a co-worker urged her to see her doctor.
"I was really negative about the colonoscopy and figured it would be a waste of my time. I didn't feel sick," she says.
The colonoscopy revealed the cancer, and further tests showed it had spread to her liver, a discovery that would be fatal without action.
With a 50-50 shot at surviving, Robin wanted to exhaust all options, but she quickly realized Gundersen's care couldn't be matched.
"The options and outlook I was given by another healthcare provider were entirely different from Gundersen's," Robin says. "Their compassion and investment in taking every possible course to help me beat this cancer brought me back."
After Robin chose Gundersen for her care, a team of specialists, including oncologist Kurt Oettel, MD, and surgeons Stephen Shapiro, MD, FACS, and Travis Smith, MD, quickly formed a plan.
"The process – from scheduling treatment and follow up appointments, to interactions I had with doctors and staff – was seamless," Robin says. "They were all very knowledgeable and able to provide options for my pain and overall treatment I didn't think were even possible."
Before surgery to remove the liver tumor, Robin would need to endure her first and second rounds of chemotherapy in the spring of 2015. In July 2015 Robin had approximately 60 percent of her liver removed.
After tests in August 2015 showed Robin's liver had responded well to surgery, a separate, more difficult surgery was scheduled to remove a rectal tumor.
In the fall of 2015, Robin received good news: no more tumors.
"Gundersen doesn't make you wait weeks for your test results," Robin says. "Results come back the same day. At a time when I was nervous, this really put me at ease."
A setback...and a doctor's compassion
Following three surgeries Robin returned to Gundersen in December 2015 for the results of a CT scan, the day before her oldest daughter's birthday.
The results were not good.
"Dr. Oettel said the scan showed a mass in my liver that was cancerous until proven otherwise," Robin says. "In a matter of four months, the tumor had grown back."
"My kids asked me if I was going to die. I said 'Not if I have anything to do with it.'"
Following a liver biopsy and an MRI to examine the mass in the liver, Dr. Oettel promised Robin he would follow up on her results right away.
"It was a Friday, and Dr. Oettel told me he was leaving town," Robin says. "But at 10 p.m. that night, he sent me a text and told me my MRI was clear and that the biopsy results were negative for cancer. Dr. Oettel cared enough about me and my treatment to drop everything he was doing to make sure I knew the results as soon as possible."
The week of Christmas 2015 Robin started her third round of chemotherapy. And finally, after four colonoscopies, several major surgeries and what she calls the "scariest roller coaster ride of her life," Robin finished chemotherapy in March 2016.
Sharing her story
There is still a 30 percent chance Robin's cancer will return, and she will need regular check-ups and colonoscopies to ensure her health.
Whatever the future holds, Robin says her doctors and her experience with cancer have given her purpose and a desire to help others.
"I lived a lot of the past year-and-a-half in denial about my diagnosis," Robin says. "I didn't want to get out of bed. I didn't want to go to appointments. But my doctors, especially Dr. Oettel and Dr. Shapiro, cared enough to call me at home to check on me, to make sure my blinds were open, make sure I was eating, and make sure I was using my support network. They took time out of their busy schedules for me. For that, I'm grateful."
"Their compassion, and my experience with cancer, has opened my eyes to so much more. My life is now about helping people and sharing my story."
The Hope Lives Foundation, an organization that supports young adults with cancer and those who have beaten cancer, remains an important part of Robin's life and mission.
"If my story can get people to think about the uncomfortable questions and uncomfortable moments in life, I'll be satisfied. People need to speak up. Talk to your doctor and lean on your support system."
"It's never just you."