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  • Writer's pictureBrenda Burk

The day that changed my life... - by Brenda Burk


Brenda Burk, registered nurse, spokesperson, avid volunteer, and colorectal cancer survivor, talks about her experience with cancer.

Brenda Burk MSN, RN, NEA-BC, CSSM, CNOR, serves on the Board of Directors for Hospice and Palliative Care for Iredell County, is a national spokesperson to reduce incivility and bullying in nursing, and serves on the Executive Round Table of the Association of Operating Room Nurses. She is a recipient of the DAISY Lifetime Achievement Award by LNRMC, where she served as Director of Surgical Services before her recent retirement. 

Brenda volunteers for cancer survivor events through various organizations and volunteers at RainbowKidz, serving children experiencing grief and loss. In her free time, Brenda loves to cook, bake, sew, read, do jigsaw puzzles, travel the world, and spend time with her adult children.


The day that changed my life…


I had my first colonoscopy on a Friday, almost twelve years ago. I knew that I was three years late in getting the colonoscopy done per the American Cancer Society guidelines, but I was not worried about it as I was fit and healthy. Additionally, my three older siblings had been screened and were cancer-free. The reason that I delayed it was that I had a hectic job in a high-pressure environment and (stupidly) did not think I could take the time off. Boy was I wrong!


I remember being woken up after the procedure by the Gastroenterologist (GI Doctor) who was holding a full-page photograph. Being a surgical nurse, I was able to recognize the image… a polyp, the size of my thumb, surrounded by a mass of about six inches in my colon. I said to him, “whose is that?” and he looked at me with concern and said, “it’s yours!” Believe me, I woke from the anesthesia right now and went into panic mode. I vividly remember saying to my husband, “what are we going to do?” We have three children, two were in college and the youngest in high school, so my immediate thought was of them not having a mother if it was cancer. Believe me, I had some crazy thoughts and emotions! 


There was a flurry of activity in the ENDO unit, and the next thing I remember was a general surgeon walking in. He very calmly explained that I was going to need a colectomy (a surgical procedure) to remove the part of my colon with the tumor. He said he was available to do the surgery on the Monday morning. I was scheduled for a CT scan on the Saturday and was instructed to be on a clear liquid diet for the weekend. 


That weekend was surreal, calling friends and family to tell them the news. We did not know if it was cancer yet, as the biopsy results would not be available for a few days. I had just resigned from my position and was scheduled to start a new job in two weeks. I called my new boss to tell her that I was not sure when, if ever, I could start; she was so kind and compassionate and told me that my health came first and they would wait for me! 


Colectomy surgery


Monday came quickly and I was wheeled into the OR to have a sigmoid colectomy, which went very well according to the surgeon. The colon, or large bowel, has three sides: the ascending colon (right side), the transverse colon, and the descending colon (left side). The left side of the colon has four sections: the descending colon, the sigmoid colon, the rectum, and the anus. The surgeon was able to remove the tumor laparoscopically and reattach my descending colon to the rectum, so no colostomy (bag), which was a fear. 


On the Wednesday, the surgical team came in to break the news that it was Stage 1 colon cancer. It was really pretty weird being told that you have cancer when the surgery had already rendered me cancer free!!! I was very blessed that the surgeon was able to get clean margins and that all the lymph nodes were clean, so I did not need chemotherapy. I was in the hospital for five days and was able to start my new job six weeks later. 


My cancer journey opened a new door for me


Two years after my procedure, I walked the Get Your Rear in Gear 5k to show gratitude for my survivorship, and to walk in memory of a good friend who died 13 months after his Stage 4 colon cancer diagnosis. He was having symptoms and only went to be screened after he learned my diagnosis. The crazy thing was that I did not have any symptoms. I subsequently learned that colorectal cancer is referred to as a “silent killer” because by the time you are having symptoms you are typically in an advanced stage. I am now a big proponent for early colon cancer screening and prevention. 


I started this blog saying my life was changed, so let me tell you why. I really believe that my cancer journey opened a new door for me and a reborn and better me emerged. For this, I will always be grateful. Through connections made at Get Your Rear in Gear, I was able to attend a cancer wellness retreat. At this beautiful nature retreat, I was treated to a session of Healing Touch therapy. This is an energy therapy in which the practitioners consciously use their hands in a heart-centered and intentional way to support and facilitate physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health. I do not know how or why, but I felt amazingly lighter and brighter - it was life-changing! The transformation continues to be amazing.


I used to be very rigid and science-based. I am now much softer, more creative, and have channeled my focus on helping others through their cancer journeys. I look at my diagnosis as a blessing which is allowing me to live my best life. I am now a student of Healing Touch. I do a daily walking meditation in my backyard labyrinth and love to host spiritual and creative gatherings. I assist at cancer wellness workshops and retreats where I have met many remarkably brave and wonderful people. I have made many new friends through our common diagnosis of cancer. In Charlotte NC, we are truly fortunate to have wonderful programs like TheAfterCancer.com with trained professionals to support us as we navigate our cancer journeys.


I now have routine colonoscopies and have had numerous precancerous polyps removed during these procedures. I often think that if I had delayed any longer the outcome would possibly have been vastly different. So please, if you are reading this blog, go for your screening on time. The ACS recommends that people at average risk of colorectal cancer start regular screening at age 45.


 

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