Among the chicken, vegetables and fruit in Priscilla Gonzalez’s freezer is a tiny section of her colon, placed in a plastic container and secured in a freezer bag. While this may be exceptionally contrary to the norm, this little piece of her body serves a powerful symbol of her triumph over colon cancer and awareness to never ignore her body again.
Even more unorthodox, Gonzalez, a metalsmith artist, plans to dehydrate that piece of her colon and set it in a ring that she’ll wear.
“Any hardship is great for an artist — a source of inspiration,” said Gonzalez, who graduated with honors from Colorado State University with a bachelor’s in Art Education while battling cancer.
Gonzalez said she is sharing her story in hopes that it will provide an even stronger message that may save someone else from similar throes.
“If I can save someone from this journey, then it will be worth it,” Gonzalez said.
Don’t ignore the signs of health problems
In late 2019, Gonzalez started to feel “not right.” She was bloated and uncomfortable much of the time. Thinking it might be a dairy allergy, she changed her diet. When that didn’t work, she tried other home remedies but nothing seemed to help. In the back of her mind, she knew she should see a doctor.
“I kept putting it off — and then COVID hit and the appointment I finally made was canceled,” Gonzalez said. “I thought it would just resolve.”
At least hoped so; she didn’t have time for the inconvenience. Gonzalez was busy finishing her arts degree at Colorado State University. She’s also a wife and mom to two sons, Benjamin, 11, and Emmanuel, 13.
When Summer 2020 arrived, pandemic restrictions became an opportunity for Gonzalez to enjoy her family and focus on art and school.
“As a family, we are nerdy,” Gonzalez said. “The kids are into comic books and Star Wars. We love music and the arts and love watching movies together — all the superhero and Star Wars movies.”
In late August 2020, ‘Black Panther’ star Chadwick Boseman died of colon cancer at age 43. With the death of such a young man to cancer, Gonzalez couldn’t help but think of her mortality — and the pain that consumed her gut.
“He was so strong. He was a superhero in the movies, and I haven’t even gotten this checked out.”
When do I need a colonoscopy?
Gonzalez already knew plenty about digestive issues and colonoscopies. Her youngest son had digestive issues at a young age and had already had five colonoscopies.
She had never had a colonoscopy. At only 39 years old, she had no reason to believe she needed to. The American Cancer Society recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screenings at age 45.
What is considered “average risk” for colorectal cancer?
- DO NOT have a personal history of colorectal cancer or certain types of polyps.
- DO NOT have a family history of colorectal cancer.
- DO NOT have a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease).
- DO NOT have a confirmed or suspected hereditary colorectal cancer syndrome, such as familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or Lynch syndrome (hereditary non-polyposis colon cancer or HNPCC).
- Do NOT have a personal history of getting radiation to the abdomen or pelvic area to treat prior cancer.
Her paternal grandmother’s sister died of colon cancer years ago, but that’s not a first-degree relative so Gonzalez figured it wasn’t reason enough for an early colonoscopy screening.
Family history, cancer screenings and why it matters
Family members may share genes, habits and environments, so considering your “family health history” is important to your overall health care plan, said Dr. Douglas Kemme, an oncologist with UCHealth in northern Colorado.
Doctors know that a family history of breast, ovarian, uterine or colorectal cancer increases risk for such diseases. There are parameters to consider, so tell your doctor if:
- Any first-degree relative, such as a parent, sibling or child, was diagnosed with any of these cancers before the age of 50.
- Two or more other relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, nephews, on either your mother’s or father’s side have had any of these cancers.
- A male relative had breast cancer.
- You have an Eastern European or Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry.
Gonzalez’s mother and her grandmother are both uterine cancer survivors. She knew she was at higher risk and therefore made sure she kept up her annual female wellness checks.
“I had feared uterine cancer, but never had I thought I would have colon cancer,” she said.
She began to see blood in her stool.
A colon cancer diagnosis
It was October 2020 when her husband, Arturo, finally convinced her to see a doctor. Gonzalez’s energy was low, she’d been seeing blood in her stool for more than a month and was extremely bloated. She went to the student clinic on campus at CSU where they drew her blood.
Before Gonzalez could make it home, the clinic’s physician called her. She needed to go to the emergency room — her blood count was extremely low; she may need a blood transfusion.
Gonzalez rushed home to tell her family of the emergency. Her younger son was worried: “Don’t tell me you have cancer,” he said.
“No, no, honey. I’m just getting it checked out. Don’t worry about it,” Gonzalez recalled of her conversation with her son. “Then, I had to go home and tell him that is exactly what it was.”
She’ll never forget the date of her diagnosis: Oct. 22, 2020.
“Never in a million years would I have thought that is what it would be,” Gonzalez said. “You need to take the signs seriously.”
Options for colon cancer
Gonzalez met with Kemme to discuss her options.
“She was in the early stages of colon cancer so there was a good chance of being cured with surgery alone,” Kemme said. “But we talked about it, and she agreed to take some treatment to improve her odds.”
Gonzalez opted for surgery with the addition of adjuvant therapy — treatment to keep cancer from returning.
“Sometimes there are microscopic diseases that we can’t see,” Kemme said. “By taking medication chemotherapy, we hope to eradicate that disease.”
Before surgery, Gonzalez had two iron infusions to help battle anemia. She had to do bowel prep, and could not eat a day before the surgery on Nov. 13 (Friday the 13th is now her lucky day) at UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies and the day after.
With seven abdominal incisions, swelling and pain, she spent three days recuperating after surgery in the hospital. She had to avoid high-fiber foods to get her digestive system back on track. She was concerned about being in pain and disrupting the incision in her colon if she wasn’t careful enough with her diet.
“I couldn’t wear normal pants for about a month after surgery, so lots of pajama and yoga pants — that was fun,” she said.
On Dec. 28, 2020, she started a three-month regimen of chemotherapy.
Continuing with life while treating cancer
Gonzalez was determined not to give up on her dream of being an art teacher just because she had cancer.
“I was on my second-to-last semester — I can’t stop now,” she said.
Her professors were supportive and allowed her to student teach virtually to protect her delicate immune system. COVID-19 added another level of concern so she ordered the family’s groceries, stayed home with her family and only went out for appointments and treatment.
“I knew I needed to recuperate, get chemo and surgery out of the way. That took priority,” Gonzalez said. “I put on my mask and hand sanitizer — I didn’t have time to be afraid.”
She finished her third round of chemotherapy on March 15, 2021 and graduated from CSU on April 7.
Finding the strength to battle cancer
Gonzalez has always found comfort in art. She has incorporated monarch butterflies into many of her creations, representing her strong Mexican-American heritage and her parents’ immigration to a new country.
Now, the symbolic insect also represents Gonzalez’s journey through colon cancer. She likens it to the transformation of a caterpillar. At first, she was challenged to listen to her body’s concerning health symptoms. Then she had to form a cocoon, protecting her body from the cancerous disease by surrounding herself with a strong health care team and loving friends and family. Now, she’s emerging from that cocoon, looking to spread her wings, using past experience to enrich her life and the lives of those around her.
“Art is such an outlet for expression, for communicating who I am; my identity without words … that’s the power of art,” she said.
Along the way, family and friends provided great strength. A counselor told her after her diagnosis that she could choose to be private about her diagnosis, but if she chose to share it, she would be amazed by the outpouring of support.
After telling her immediate family, she posted news of her colon cancer diagnosis on Facebook.
“The outpouring of support was like I never imaged,” she said. “That’s what kept us going — all that positivity from the beginning.”
Gonzalez said it also triggered her desire to help raise awareness.
Raising colon cancer awareness
“I never thought that (colon cancer) is what was wrong with me,” she explained. “You have to listen to your bodies, watch for the red flags, stay on top of your screenings, get checked out for what runs in the family. I posted all the things that I’ve gone through, even the embarrassing ones. If I can save someone from this journey, it will be worth it.”
Kemme echoes her sentiment.
“Patients need to be their own advocates,” he said. “The challenges are that when young people like Priscilla have symptoms, cancer doesn’t come top of mind so care can be delayed. But practitioners need to keep it on the radar, and if their doctor isn’t listening to them, then get another doctor. If you have symptoms, you need to address them. Bring them up to your physician and make sure they’re listening and reacting.”
Gonzalez is glad she finally listened to her body and found a health care team to support her because colon cancer wasn’t the only thing she had to consider. During her cancer journey, a genetic test revealed she had a 42% chance of uterine cancer. Having battled one cancer, she wasn’t going to risk another. This summer she’ll have a hysterectomy.
“I feel flattered when people say I’m so strong,” Gonzalez said. “But there is this resilience in humans that we don’t realize until we have to use it. Don’t doubt yourself; we are more capable than you may realize — you have it in you to keep fighting and keep going.”