Rachel Allen has a passion for ministry, making cakes and Mickey Mouse. She has a husband and two kids she adores, a master’s degree, and a fulfilling career as a psychological examiner.
The Modern Woodmen member from Searcy, Arkansas, also has an unbelievably positive outlook … especially considering all the things she doesn’t have. Most of a colon. Three feet of a small intestine. An appendix. A gallbladder. And a misguided, but common, belief that 20-somethings are invincible.
She knows all too well they are not.
Here, in her own words, Rachel recounts her story of survival.
My cancer journey
Member Rachel Allen, Searcy, Ark.
May 5, 2012, was the perfect day. Derek, the kids and I went to Disney on Ice. Later, we spent time with my parents and went to a barbecue.
The next morning, everything changed.
I woke up at 4 a.m. feeling very nauseous. Initially, I thought I was pregnant and having morning sickness. When it didn’t stop, I knew something else was going on.
The pain became excruciating and wouldn’t go away, so around 2 that afternoon we decided I needed to get to the hospital. By the time the ambulance arrived, my stomach was swollen and hard.
I was rushed into the trauma room. After a CT scan, the doctor came in, sat beside the bed and said four words I never knew I dreaded so much.
“Well, it’s colon cancer.”
Surgery No. 1 and the days to follow
My memories of this time are foggy because I was barely hanging on. My blood pressure was in the 30s to 40s, and my pulse was well over 200.
Thankfully, the ER doctor asked my dad (who is a pediatrician) if he had connections at a bigger hospital. He arranged for a transfer, a room in the ICU and a surgeon. I would not have made it through the night without that transfer.
Surgery lasted a few hours. They had to take my appendix, 3 feet of small intestine and all but 6 inches of my colon. After tests, they determined my cancer was at Stage 2A.
I woke up in the ICU with a ventilator, ileostomy and countless tubes. I healed very quickly and was able to transfer to a regular room in just four days. I went home after another four to five days.
The most amazing thing through all of this was that I was at peace. I knew God had saved me that first night, and he wasn’t going to drop me after that.
Several more surgeries
After being home about a week, I had to go back into the hospital for about five days because I was having severe abdominal pain. My intestines were in spasm due to the trauma they had experienced.
On June 1, my oncologist did another CT scan and MRI and discovered a spot on my liver. This moved my cancer into Stage 4.
I went for my liver procedure on June 29. When I woke up in recovery, I was having a heart attack. They rushed me to the cath lab and gave me an extra day in the hospital for monitoring.
An ECHO test proved my heart returned to normal with no lasting damage. Everything seemed to be looking up. I returned to work two days per week in August.
Then, in September, I started having more abdominal pain and nausea. There was a build-up of scar tissue from my previous surgery, and my intestines were kinked in two places. So on Sept. 11, I went into surgery yet again.
Back to life
I came home from the hospital after a few days and returned to chemo and work about a month later. On Dec. 18, 2012, my PET scan showed no evidence of malignant disease. My cancer was gone!
Today, I still go for chemo every Tuesday. I’ve had clear scans every three months, and my tumor markers have been great.
This experience has taught me life is short and precious. You never know when your last day will be. I almost had mine at age 28 from a disease we never would have suspected.
I hope my kids can see what a fighter I am. I hope I can inspire them to beat the odds and always fight for their health and their needs.
I’m feeling stronger than ever and will continue to fight as long as I need to – both for myself and for others.
Lesson: Plan ahead
The Allens had never given much thought to life insurance or financial planning before Rachel’s sickness.
“We just thought we were young and would worry about that later,” Rachel says. “Now I realize we should place a priority on preparing for what we may face financially.”
Fortunately, the family’s church decided to purchase coverage for Derek (who is a minister) as part of his salary package in 2010. The following year, the couple decided it would be wise to cover Rachel and the kids as well.
Rachel’s life insurance was issued just a few months before her diagnosis. She even received a preferred rate because she was young and healthy.
Lesson: Laugh often
Well before her diagnosis, Rachel received her master’s degree in psychology. Her intention was to do therapy with cancer patients someday. She planned to write her dissertation on the effects of laughter on cancer patients’ quality of life.
Rachel has lived out that study since she was diagnosed.
“We try to find the positive in everything we’ve faced and laugh as much as we can,” she says.
Every night, Rachel and Derek watch some kind of comedy before bed. Their kids, Landen (6) and Caroline (4), also keep Rachel in high spirits.
Lesson: Love much
Rachel’s diagnosis has impacted most every area of life for the Allen family – down to what they choose to eat.
Aside from her medical issues, Rachel has a constant fear that something will happen again. She worries about her kids, who will have to start getting colonoscopies at age 18.
But she tries not to worry about trivial things.
Lesson: Keep fighting
In March, Rachel and Derek went to New York to be part of the first One Million Strong march to raise awareness of colorectal cancer.
As they have learned, it’s not just an old man’s disease. Among cancers that affect both men and women, it’s the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S. However, when detected early, it’s highly treatable.*
In hindsight, Rachel recognizes symptoms that were likely indicators of her cancer. However, there was no family history. Even her doctors said they wouldn’t have suspected it.
“I’ve learned we should talk to our doctors about whatever we’re experiencing – even if it’s embarrassing,” she says. “It could save your life.”
*Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention