I might not know you well enough to share the actual details of my story. While I can spare you the most dramatic—the mere whisper of “cancer,” followed by, “stage 3 rectal” is enough to make you feel launched into an unearthly orbit of awkwardness. Welcome to my world.
In reality, 10-15 years ago, rectal cancer wasn’t even a thing for younger, healthy, active females. Who’d even heard of it? Maybe someone had a grandfather who’d had it? But this kind of cancer? YOU? Really—there?!
I just didn’t look like I could be sick, let alone have this type of cancer. But I did. Cancer in any form is shocking, particularly when the treatments are as outdated as the outlook. Today, colorectal cancer is becoming more and more common in younger people, at late-stage detection, with little advancement in treatment offerings. This fight was going to be tough.
I faced an entirely new reality, with so many things I didn’t know or think to expect—all equal parts hilarious, devastating, and terrifying—but also really beautiful.
As I write this in support of World Cancer Day, I choose to focus on the most beautiful: That I didn’t go through this experience alone. I had a community to carry me.
Are you crazy? No thanks.
In late 2017, two weeks after my birthday, I received my big, sneaky, ugly-coloured, foul-mouthed cancer diagnosis—one I could barely grasp, let alone speak out loud. When the first doctor told me I likely wouldn’t die, but that my only option would be radical surgery for a permanent colostomy bag, I immediately said:
Then I proceeded to hysterically break into tears.
That’s what I refer to as Day 1.
Everyone who chooses to share their cancer story has a Day 1, with varied experiences on the way to completing treatment. But you wipe your tears, keep marching forward, and pray for a good outcome.
So that’s what I did. That’s what so many do, the outcome dependent on a bit of science mixed with a load of luck.
An all-in effort to save. my. ass.
My close friends, sprinkled across the United States, all rallied - with some forming a social group to connect on schedules, fly-in visits, feedings, appointments, caretaking and holding me through the scary moments.
One of those times happened after my second round of chemo, when we thought the tumour had returned. I had already received the highest level of radiation I was allowed in my lifetime, so the only recourse meant I would have to prepare for radical surgery.
“I just don’t think I’m strong enough,” I said to my friend. “Who will love me now? I mean, how will someone love me when I don’t know how I will?” The thought was so life-altering that it made me completely irrational.
My friend took my hand and said: “Well, in fairness, you’re not doing so great right now.”
The tension was immediately broken, and we cackled with laughter. The next day she gifted me a book of stories featuring couples who fell in love despite physical limitations. I couldn’t help but feel better. The new tumour was benign; I didn’t end up needing the radical surgery, but I still have that book.
The notion and value of community never really resonated with me prior to any of this, and I could never have imagined this world of love and support that voluntarily carried me through even the darkest times. We branded our effort “Save Carley’s Ass,” and everyone was in the fight with me. We made hats, bracelets, note pads—you name it. My community mobilised, accessorized, and jumped right in.
Friends guided, coached, and nurtured me in countless ways; consulting with my doctors, taking conference calls from the side of my hospital beds, sleeping on cots while I recovered from procedures, interrupting their lives to come to support me—so many acts of kindness I’ll be forever grateful for.
Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City specializes in organ preservation, meaning my treatment team—Drs. J. Joshua Smith, Christopher Crane, Julio Garcia-Aguilar, Anna M. Verghese and Mario M. Leitao, along with the nurses, phlebotomists, anesthesiologists with small needles, radiation techs, and assistants—not only saved my live, but quite literally saved my ass. They call this cancer “the silent killer,” due to late-stage detection, so I am most certainly one of the lucky ones.
Community carries on.
There were other people in this community, too. People I didn’t know—patients, but strangers, really, going through their own personal cancer experiences. We met in various MRI waiting rooms, radiation changing rooms and surgical prep rooms.
They saw how fragile and frightened I was and embraced me. They talked me through their journeys, gave me advice, hugs while I cried, and often exchanged contacts so we could speak and connect and know that we knew. We may have been strangers, but we could see each other and could offer the type of knowing comfort that only comes from living it too.
I will never forget a couple my friends and I met in a PET Scan waiting room my first week of diagnosis. He had been living with Stage 4 Colon Cancer for over 10 years, and he and his wife travelled up to New York from Georgia each month for check-ups. I found his story remarkable.
Before leaving to head back to Georgia, he shared advice that I carry with me to this day: “You can’t live in the fear, Carley. We both may die of cancer one day. But not today.”
This collective community, who now all know each other, poured so much love on me, so generously, that when I was finally healthier, I was able to do the same. To offer my comfort and knowing advice and hope to newly diagnosed men and women that I would meet in the same waiting and test rooms.
Some of these people are sadly no longer with us, but hopefully those still in the fight can feel the support from this community, take from it, and pass it on.
Community carries on, even if some of us can’t.
I believe we take from each life experience what we choose to. I choose to believe this was one of the best worst experiences that has ever happened to me. Don’t get me wrong—I would give anything to have never gone through this, as it’s a tough way to learn life lessons. However, this was meant to be a part of my story and I’ll share it as often and as loudly as I can if sharing my story helps someone living theirs.
Because I am one of the lucky ones. I’m still here, in the fight for my health with a community helping me at every evolution. I have love, I have faith, and I have renewed purpose. I get to give back to the community that carried me.
Because community carries on.
Carley Faircloth is currently living NED (No Evidence of Detection), 4 Years