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Montana woman shares her journey with colon cancer

Shelley Cowan
Posted at 10:47 AM, Mar 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-20 12:47:59-04

MISSOULA - March is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and we talked with a local woman’s journey with colon cancer.

Shelly Cowan noticed some changes in her body on Super Bowl Sunday in 2012 which led her to her doctor's office for a colonoscopy. At 38 years old, Shelly was diagnosed with colon cancer. A nursing student at the time, Shelly got a phone call that she will never forget.

“I was in my second month of nursing school, and I can remember that Wednesday when I was in lab, and I got a phone call, and his words were ‘you have a little bit of cancer.’ I’m not sure what a little bit of cancer means, but that started the process of where do we go from here?”

While different types of cancers can be more aggressive, for Shelly, her colon cancer diagnosis meant a quick surgery.

“My cancer was contained in the sigmoid colon, which when you’re looking at anatomy, it’s the last stretch of colon and it was a fungated mass,” Shelly recalled. “It had already started to open up and start spreading out. My surgeon at the time said we need to get this out quickly, and I said ‘well, I need to wait. I’m in nursing school and my son’s birthday is in a few weeks so I need to do that.’ She said 'no, this is an aggressive cancer and if we wait to get it out it’ll be too late'.”

But while Shelly recovered from surgery, more devastating news came to the family.

“I went home from the hospital, and it was a week later that my youngest child was diagnosed with a brain tumor,” Shelly said. He was in Seattle, and so my treatment got put kind of on the back burner as I handled nursing school and the diagnosis of my own child as well as my own cancer.”

There was also good news — Shelly’s son’s tumor was not cancerous and was removed. But just when Shelly was scheduled to start chemo, her team came across a discovery.

“Dr. Nichalos sat me down and said, ‘I know where you're at and the situation we’re going through.’ And the team had sat down and gone through my stuff slide by slide and saw that my cancer had not left the lymph tracks,” Shelly said. “They were confident that it hadn't left the lymph track and I didn’t need chemo and we stopped planning at that time.”

Shelly was told no more disease was detected.

“The feeling of being told that you are cancer free is thrilling and scary at the same time. Because you heard that you are cancer free, but for the rest of your life that word cancer is associated with you,” Shelly told MTN News. “And with that word being associated with you, every time that you have something come you are a little bit more contentious and paranoid so being told your cancer free is such a huge blessing."

Shelly shared with us the importance of listening to your body and making that appointment if you feel that something is wrong and getting it checked.

“Don’t be afraid and prideful and keep it to yourself. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation with your doctor. They’ve heard it all. They’ve seen it all and they are not going to think any differently of you by bringing up something that might be embarrassing to you. I think that might be the biggest thing because people aren’t caught soon enough because they’re embarrassed of the conversation that they need to have with their doctor."