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Feb 11, 2011 12:51 AM by Becky Hillier - Q2 Health Watch

Billings woman diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer is beating the odds

BILLINGS - A cancer diagnosis is devastating, but imagine being diagnosed with cancer already in its final stage.

That's what happened to Debbie Ontiveros Carter.

She was just 34 when she was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer.

Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in the United States and one of the most common cancers in men and women.

But Debbie's story is anything but common - faced with a grim diagnosis, she is beating the odds.

About 150 thousand new cases of colon cancer are diagnosed every year...

Dr. Jorge Nieva, an oncologist with Billings Clinic Cancer Center, says "we cure the majority of patients with colorectal cancer but we don't cure everyone, there are more than 50 thousand deaths from colon cancer each year."

The disease occurs fairly equally between men and women, but is more common in people over the age of 50.

"Patients who have colon cancer are typically in fact older, we detect most of our colon cancers in older patients, but we do see colon cancer in younger folks as well" he says.

Debbie Ontiveros Carter, the mother to two beautiful girls, is one of those younger patients

She says she started experiencing some bloating and other digestive issues in her early 30's, but she wasn't alarmed.

It was a stubborn kidney infection that finally got her in to see her doctor who ran a series of tests - the results required follow-up with a specialist, who thought the problem might actually be in her colon.

"the doctor was pretty much trying to say let's not even go through with having the colonoscopy" Debbie says, "you're too young and I said I did have a grampa that died of it, I said I'd feel better if we'd just do it."

Debbie did have the colonoscopy and devastating news soon followed.

She tells us, "I just looked at my boyfriend and said I have cancer don't I, he started crying and said yes. But at that point we didn't know what stage or how progressed it was or anything."

Debbie was just 34 years old.

The tumor was quite large - bigger than a peach, and the news soon went from bad to worse.

She tells us, "it was in the last stage and it had spread to other organs already. It spread to my liver and lymph nodes."

Dr. Nieva says Debbie's case was so unique because she was diagnosed at such a young age and her cancer was so advanced by the time it was discovered.

Dr. Nieva says "the majority of patients diagnosed with Stage IV colorectal cancer die within the first two years.

Daunting odds - but odds Debbie would beat.

A care team at the Billings Clinic Cancer Center developed an aggressive treatment plan for Debbie which included surgery and chemotherapy.

Dr. Nieva tells us, "she had a good operation, she had the tumor in her liver removed and that's a critical component in surviving stage IV colon cancer is being able to isolate the places there is disease"

Now three years after her initial diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer, Debbie is cancer free and receives a low dose of maintenance chemotherapy every 3 weeks. She also receives quarterly cat scans.

"Every year that goes by, the likelihood of her dying of colon cancer actually goes down, because she hasn't relapsed in the first couple of years, the likelihood that she relapses goes down" says Dr. Nieva.

"I don't know why I'm even here still. I'm really thankful that I am, God must have some kind of plan for me because I shouldn't technically be here" Debbie says.

Next month is Colon Cancer Awareness Month and Billings Clinic is presenting a lunch & learn on colorectal cancer with Oncologist Robert Geller, MD, and Gastroenterologist Steven Hammond, MD on Wednesday, March 16 from noon to 1:00 PM.

The event is held at the Mary Alice Fortin Health Conference Center at Billings Clinic Hospital.

A light lunch will be provided and registration is required.

Please call 255-8440 or 1-800-252-1246 to register.

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