Swimming. Rock climbing. Trapeze flying. If it’s physical and fun, Christy is game. A self-described adrenaline junkie with an abiding athleticism and freakishly high pain threshold, Christy was active every day, until the day she found out she had cancer.

“It was a dead, screeching halt in my normal life,” Christy said. Now, two years later, she’s coming from a cross-fit class, stronger than ever.

Christy was diagnosed with colon cancer when she was 41 years old, which was remarkable for four reasons. First, she was young for the diagnosis. Second, she had a tumor that typically takes years to develop from a polyp. The early stages are asymptomatic, meaning she had carried this without knowing for years before her symptoms developed. She’s also Korean-American and colon cancer has a very low incidence in Koreans. Most of all, with a different doctor the MRI that revealed her tumor might never have happened.

Colon cancer scan

When Christy was a toddler, she spent two days with a dislocated shoulder because she never cried, never alerted her parents to any pain. They noticed she wasn’t using her arm and took her to the doctor anyways, thus she was diagnosed and treated.

All of which is to say it was not unusual when Christy spent four months with intense stomach pain: 10 seconds, over and over, every day, for a third of a year. Again, it was her parents who took charge. “My mom was like, Christy, what on earth are you doing? Go to the doctor and find out what that is,” Christy remembered.

Not long after, she was diagnosed with an ulcer and prescribed an antibiotic, to which she had a violent reaction. This time, Christy took herself to immediate care. There, she learned that she didn’t have an ulcer, rather it was more likely she had gallstones. She was scheduled to see Christian Stevoff, MD, a gastroenterologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

An ultrasound confirmed the gallstones, while also revealing a hemangioma, a benign growth in her liver that looked normal. Still, Dr. Stevoff recommended that Christy get an MRI. He had noted fullness in her abdomen that was not explained by the ultrasound findings. An MRI would check the liver lesion, but it would also show whether the fullness was serious or not.

In the corner of the MRI scan, her doctors saw a mass by her colon. A second MRI revealed it to be a tumor. A biopsy would confirm she had colon cancer.

“I had to have gallstones to get to the immediate care doctor, and then in finding the gallstones they found the tumor,” Christy said. “And Dr. Stevoff had to have the insight to say, go do this. So when I say I have luck on my side, I totally have luck on my side.”

Christy called her cancer Clementine, and from the moment of her diagnosis, she knew she was going to beat Clementine. Giving her cancer a silly, non-threatening name was as much for her own strength as her friends’: a few years earlier, they had all lost a close friend to colon cancer. Like Christy, he was young. Like Christy, he was athletic, and healthy, he ate right. But the cancer spread to his brain and in two years he was gone.

“After I had my colonoscopy, and they had taken the tumor out, when Dr. Stevoff came and said, we’re doing a biopsy but I’m 99 percent positive it’s colon cancer, I just broke out in tears,” Christy said. “I kind of surprised myself, but I was thinking about how we all naturally assumed that our friend would be fine.” When she explained why she was crying to Dr. Stevoff, he told her they would do their best to not let that happen.

Still, the time after diagnosis is a blur and Christy came to rely on Linda, her nurse navigator. Head spinning, occupied with thoughts of hair loss and worst case scenarios, Linda made sure Christy did what she needed to do over the two weeks between MRI and surgery. There were tests to confirm the cancer, tests to identify the type of cancer, tests to determine the stage and tests to determine if she was healthy for treatment. Linda gave Christy the steps, guided her, making sure she was ready for what came next.

The time after diagnosis is a blur and Christy came to rely on Linda, her nurse navigator.”

The team at Northwestern Medicine has extensive experience with digestive cancers, experience that draws from technical expertise, ongoing research — including recent studies on coffee and inflammation — and forward thinking clinical trials. Multiple locations offer leading-edge treatment in advanced surgery, radiation and chemotherapy and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center is home to clinical trials for colorectal cancer including a phase two trial to investigate the impact of vitamin D supplements for treating colorectal cancer that has spread to other areas as well as phase three trials to study the effectiveness of new treatments, ThedaSphere® and FOLFOX.

Treatment for Christy meant surgery — she was comparatively lucky and would not need chemotherapy. David Bentrem, MD took out Christy’s gallbladder, the tumor and about 27 lymph nodes, all of which appeared clean because of how quickly the team caught the cancer. The whole surgery took an hour and a half. But cancer is more complicated than that, and continued to impact her life in new ways.

Christy did not want cancer to define her; she did not want to be “Christy with cancer” or even “Christy the cancer survivor.”

“Cancer is the kind of disease you wear,” Christy said. “No matter what you do, you can’t escape it. People will always look at you and you’ll see the pity in their eyes and you’ll be constantly reminded that you’re sick. And that’s super scary — because you can’t ever take a break and pretend things are normal.”

I was strong, but I also had a bit luck on my side. And a great staff.”

Moving forward, she has become more comfortable with the designation. She still has a scar — two and a half inches by her belly button — and she’s okay with it. It’s a reminder that you can hit the curveballs, take the blows, that life throws at you. It’s accepting that she is a cancer survivor and there’s nothing good or bad about that title. She is strong, but that doesn’t mean the people who didn’t win their battles were not.

“I was strong, but I also had a bit luck on my side. And a great staff,” Christy said. “It wasn’t just the physicians who gave amazing care, but people like Linda, the people who schedule the appointments, handle the insurance. Every little thing, they were like, don’t worry about it. You worry about making sure you’re healthy. We’re going to take care of it.”

Rock climbing photo

When Christy is not rappelling into canyons or at her regular cross-fit class, she’s working. She sells enterprise-level software for a technology company, which entails a lot of conference calls, in-person presentations and a fair amount of travel. She loves her company, her boss was incredible during her experience and her co-workers would bring meals to her home during recovery.

The first time I could actually get on an airplane and lift my luggage in by myself, which seems like a completely mundane thing, was a moment for me.”

At a certain point in her recovery, Christy began to travel for work again. But like everything else, it came with a caveat. She couldn’t lift anything over 10 pounds — her bags were never heavy, but even a small overnight bag weighs 10 pounds. So, she would have to ask someone to put her bags in the overhead compartment. Or to grab her — admittedly small — bag off the luggage carousel.

“They would look at me like I was being totally high maintenance! I would explain, but these men would look at me like, what kind of princess are you?” Christy remembered. “And I’m not used to that — I’m one of those people that’s like, I’m strong, I can do it myself, back off!

“The first time I could actually get on an airplane and lift my luggage in by myself, which seems like a completely mundane thing, was a moment for me.”

Three months after her surgery, Christy went on her first run. As she was approaching the three-mile mark, she had to decide whether to stop there or run for her routine five or six miles. It was her first real athletic feat since treatment and three miles would have been respectable.

“I knew in the back of my head that Dr. Bentrem would tell me I’m fine, Linda would tell me I’m fine,” Christy said. “So I was like, I’m going to do it.”

Her everyday has been active ever since.

Making an #ImpactEveryDay