By: Taylor O’Bier
Students and faculty in Northumberland County changed their outfit plans for Friday, Dec. 2, to include the color blue. The statement was not to reflect sadness or relaxation, as blue is often associated with. The blue these students and faculty wore was to show their support and admiration for the beloved Northumberland Middle School Principal, Peggy Myrick.
Myrick, 36, was diagnosed on Oct. 31, with colorectal cancer that has spread to her liver, classifying it as stage IV. Two weeks later she created a blog, pegscancerjourney.wordpress.com, to openly document her journey and battle that has only just begun.
According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal, or colon, cancer begins its growth on the inner lining of the colon. There are several types of colon cancer and many symptoms, such as diarrhea and rectal bleeding, that could help discover its existence. However, these symptoms often overlap with other common diseases that occur in this part of the digestive system. It is also more likely for colon cancer to occur in those over 50 years of age and the risk factor is slightly lower in women than in men, according to the American Cancer Society.
Which is exactly the reason why Myrick didn’t chalk up her symptoms to cancer when she started experiencing them in March, over six months before she was diagnosed. Her general practitioner ordered the colonoscopy after prescribed medications did not subside her symptoms. Both her general practitioner and the gastroenterologist that performed the colonoscopy did not believe the outcome would be cancer.
“I thought it was going to be ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease,” said Myrick, “I thought I was going to have to change my diet.” Instead her life has been changed. Prior to the diagnosis she spoke with her best friend, a nurse practitioner in Ohio, and said she thought it might be cancer, but her friend reassured her she would be fine. Myrick said, “It was much to everybody’s surprise that I did have a large tumor in my colon.”
The tumor stretches from the bottom part of her colon down through the top third of her rectum. It has resulted in a partial obstruction, where as a full obstruction would have required emergency surgery the day of her colonoscopy. After she was informed of the spots on her liver, she knew she needed the best doctors and believed they could be found at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Myrick admires their “team approach” to dealing with cancer patients.
Her parents and wife were with her the day of the diagnosis. “My first thought was this couldn’t be really happening,” said her mother Pamela, “her diagnosis was not a surprise, it was a shock.” Pamela recalled the doctor spoke with the family firstand as soon as she heard the word “mass” she knew where it was going. Pamela worked as a Registered Nurse for many years at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, formally known as MCV.
“As a nurse I have seen many patients with cancer. I never in my wildest dreams considered that I would see one of my children have cancer,” said Pamela, “People tend to feel it happens to someone else. I had fallen into that line of thinking.”
Further testing at Johns Hopkins showed spots in Myrick’s lymph nodes as well, confirming she has stage IV metastatic cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, metastatic cancer is when the cancer cells have spread significantly to other parts of the body. The areas it has spread are difficult to operate on. Myrick said in her blog on Nov. 17, “The goal is to keep me stable enough to qualify for a clinical trial that can help me, but at this time, it is considered incurable.”
On Nov. 18 she underwent surgery to insert of port in her chest to receive three different chemotherapy drugs every other week. Myrick receives the chemo the first day at the hospital and then takes a pump home for the next two days that will later be removed by a nurse. Her first round of treatment was the week of Thanksgiving.
She described the experience in detail on her blog, stating she went through extreme hot and cold flashes. The craziest side effect she recalled was chemo-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) caused by the chemo drug named Oxaliplatin. CIPN is a result of the nerve damage chemo can have on the body, according to the American Cancer Society.
Myrick experienced this in the form of cold sensitivity as she stopped by Chick-Fil-A on her way home from the hospital after her first treatment. She took a sip of her favorite drink, sweet tea mixed with lemonade, and described the sensation as taking a bite of a glass Christmas ornament as she swallowed the drink. She has learned from members of support groups she’s joined that sometimes CIPN is a permanent product of chemo.
Stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea are all common side effects Myrick has experienced with her first round. She stated on her blog that balancing the medications to combat the side effects is like walking a tight rope. Her second round of chemo was Sunday, Dec. 4.
Metastatic, or stage IV colon cancers, have a 5-year relative survival rate of about 11 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. Despite this harsh reality, Myrick has maintained an optimistic outlook on both her blog and with her daily life. Pamela has stated that Myrick has always been a positive, enthusiastic person. “I always face challenges with a positive attitude because I think attitude makes a big difference,” said Myrick, “so I am meeting the challenge head on and doing what I have to do.”
When Myrick was in college, her grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer and given eight months to live. Much to the doctors’ surprise, her grandmother went on to live another ten years with parts of her lungs removed. Ironically, Myrick is named after her grandmother. She remembered how her grandmother never complained or felt sorry for herself during her treatments and has used that as inspiration for her own battle with cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, there are about 95,270 new cases of colon cancer this year. Although it is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States, it is often not discussed as frequently as the top two. Myrick believes that is due to the fact that it is a cancer that involves a certain level of privacy to be dissolved.
Myrick’s mother Pamela stated, “Peggy, the educator that she is, has made it her mission to educate people about colorectal cancer signs and symptoms.” Myrick fills her blog with info-graphs and personal testaments to remind people that early screenings can save a life. She said she has already had several people tell her that she has inspired them to stop putting off their own colonoscopies. She keeps her blog very transparent, talking about things many may find uncomfortable to discuss in detail.
Myrick has been at Northumberland for three years now, spending her first two years as assistant principal to the high school. Prior to her move here, she was a Spanish teach at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Hanover County for twelve years, simultaneously earning her Masters in Administration through the University of Virginia. “I really liked the family feel from the beginning in Northumberland,” said Myrick.
Without the community support and family support, Myrick stated she could not go through this journey. Her family has been there every step of the way, although it has not been easy. “I feel that my life will never be the same,” said Pamela, Myrick’s mother, “In time we may find some normalcy, but the pain of seeing your daughter having to face this horrible disease will be with me forever.”
“I’m a fighter and I fully intend to fight this and do what I can to get healthy and get better,” said Myrick, “But I want all the kids to…live each day to the fullest because you never know what’s going to happen. This has been life changing for me, but it really makes you appreciate the small things and the important things, especially around the holiday season.”