Anita Mitchell is a busy mother to three children. Like most parents during the holidays, she had little time to think about herself. And like most moms, it took an extraordinary event to get her to pay attention to symptoms that had been bothering her for quite a while.
"Late in 2004, I wasn't feeling great," Mitchell said. "I'd had gastrointestinal (GI) pain and diarrhea nearly every morning and an occasional bloody stool."
Mitchell attributed her GI trouble to drinking coffee, even though she drank it decaffeinated. Her doctor told her it was most likely hemorrhoids. Two weeks later, in November, she went in for her annual physical, "and my doctor didn't remember that I'd been there two weeks before," Mitchell says. "She wasn't reading her notes, but I figured that just meant she wasn't worried about my symptoms, so I didn't worry either."
Thanksgiving brought continued discomfort for Mitchell. In December she wasn't feeling good at all but pushed through the hustle and bustle that came with the busy holiday season. She was brought to a halt in January by a particularly "bad episode," she calls it, and saw a lot of blood in the toilet.
"I looked in my medical dictionary and saw that I could have diverticulitis, Crohn's disease or colon cancer," Mitchell says, "so I called my mom to confirm what type of cancer my father had died of when I was 16 and he was 45. She said it was colon cancer."
Mitchell had just turned 41 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer in February 2005. The cancer in her colon had already metastasized — that is, spread to other parts of her body — and she had seven tumors on her liver that were too large and diffuse to remove surgically.
In mid-February, Dr. Mika Sinanan, professor of surgery at UW Medical Center, removed a foot and a half of Mitchell's colon, 14 lymph nodes — six of which had cancer — and one of Mitchell's ovaries. A month later, Mitchell saw her medical oncologist, Dr. Sam Whiting, at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. They discussed how best to approach Mitchell's metastatic cancer, focusing on the option for sequencing several therapies to possibly cure her typically incurable cancer.
Her treatment began in late March, with chemotherapy every other week to attack her liver tumors and any other cancer cells that could have been in her body.
"My cancer responded very well to the chemotherapy," Mitchell says. "My tumors were shrinking, and in August I was able to have a liver resection."
Dr. Raymond Yeung, professor of surgery at UW Medical Center, performed this procedure. He surgically removed three of the tumors and treated the others with radio-frequency ablation, a technique using a special type of electrical energy to heat and kill tumor tissue.
It was a long 10 days before Mitchell could go home, and she later returned to UW Medical Center because she was having difficulty recovering from surgery and keeping food down. By late September, she was able to restart her chemotherapy treatments, and she began receiving another powerful drug combination designed to treat and eliminate any residual cancer that was left behind. Mitchell received two months of this aggressive treatment before side effects and fatigue became limiting to her quality of life.
"At this point, there was no cancer detectable in Anita by even the most sophisticated tests," Whiting says.
Whiting cut back on treatment to a single drug with minimal side effects, hoping to prevent the regrowth of any residual cancer cells. The last treatment continued for a little more than a year before being halted.
"Anita is now off of all cancer-directed therapy," Whiting says, "and is being followed carefully for cancer recurrence. She remains free of detectable disease."
Because of her family history, Mitchell says she now knows she should have been screened when she was in her early 30s. Since her colon-cancer diagnosis, Mitchell has become an advocate for early detection — from knowing your family history to promoting early screenings for those at risk. She has joined support groups and is a member of the colon-cancer task force for the Washington Comprehensive Cancer Control Partnership Program. She is also a member of the Colon Cancer Alliance; she is part of its Buddy Program which helps people diagnosed with colon cancer.
In 2007 Mitchell's photo was featured alongside another colon-cancer survivor in a calendar used to raise money for colon-cancer awareness. Mitchell and Whiting were also featured in a program on HealthTalk.com about her diagnosis and the treatment that brought her cancer into remission.
"The doctors are outstanding at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and UW Medical Center," Mitchell says. "When I was diagnosed, several of my friends, who are nurses, told me there was only one place for me to go, and that was SCCA."