Sue Falco was only 38, the mother of two small children, when she was diagnosed with rectal cancer in February 2009.
That was 12 years before she would normally have been due for a screening colonoscopy to detect colorectal cancer. But because Falco had been bothered by gastrointestinal problems for years, she’d already had the test at 33.
At that time, her doctor in California removed several pre-cancerous polyps. But even though her brother had a non-malignant polyp removed previously, “no one seemed very alarmed about it,” Falco said. She was told to repeat the test in five years.
By that time, Falco and her husband had moved to Charlotte, where she continued to have symptoms such as constipation and bleeding. She saw many doctors, who diagnosed hemorrhoids and constipation and prescribed Miralax and Metamucil.
“Nobody was listening to me,” said Falco, a computer software trainer. Out of frustration, she stopped seeing doctors until a friend recommended Dr. John Morrison, a Charlotte colon and rectal surgeon. The day before her appointment, she began bleeding heavily and Morrison saw her immediately. During a physical exam, he found a polyp in her rectum.
Falco thinks the polyp was missed during the first colonoscopy. “Colonoscopies are our best chance at preventing the disease but they are not 100 percent,” she said. “There is always chance for human error.”
The polyp was malignant, and Falco traveled to the Mayo Clinic, where surgeons removed part of her colon and rectum. Although she thought she might have to wear a colostomy bag, doctors were able to preserve her normal bowel function.
Falco began a program of nutrition and exercise to improve her already-good health. Through her children’s pre-school at Carmel Baptist Church, Falco met a colon cancer survivor, Mary-Karen Bierman, and together in 2010, they started the local Get Your Rear in Gear race to raise money for services to other cancer patients. The fifth annual race is Saturday.
Over the years, the race has raised more than $400,000. That helped create a support group, which meets monthly at Novant Health Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center. The money also pays for colon cancer patients to join “Strides to Strength,” which offers massage, nutrition advice and exercise programs.
In 2012, on the fourth anniversary of her diagnosis, Falco was preparing for her first half-marathon when she learned the cancer had spread to her lungs. She gets chemotherapy every other week, while continuing to compete in half-marathons and 5K races.
With Stage IV cancer, her chances of survival are “very small,” Falco said. But she continues to focus on staying healthy and helping others. “I don’t want anyone to ever have to go through what I went through. It was unacceptable. I want to change that.”