Fighting Colorectal Cancer with Courage

Petra Pohl is a self-described introvert who really only ever felt comfortable speaking in front of the preschoolers she taught for years before her retirement. Imagine how difficult it is for the Vacaville resident to start a conversation about colorectal cancer.

ABOVE: Petra Pohl, seated, appreciates the support she receives from her medical team at the NorthBay Cancer Center including oncologist and hematologist Jonathan Lopez, M.D., and Keni Horiuchi, R.N.

But that’s exactly what she’s doing, because the three-year survivor is passionate about educating the public on this “sneaky, diabolical illness.”

Colon cancer isn’t necessarily handed down through family genes. And its symptoms are mostly invisible until its later stages. “A colonoscopy is nothing short of a miracle,” said Petra. “It can expose pre-cancerous polyps and allow a doctor to remove them, which might save your life. Why go through what I went through if you don’t have to?”

No one looks forward to a colonoscopy, and some people downright dread them. But the complaints are mostly related to the preparation—drinking oh-so-many ounces of a not-so-tasty solution and cleaning out the system prior to the test, said Petra. “The prep is no fun.”

And, she pointed out, “there is a stigma associated with this part of our body, and currently one out of three people are behind on their screenings. My goal is to raise awareness about colorectal cancer so others won’t make the same mistake.”

Petra was taking care of her elderly parents for years, and admittedly put her own health on the back burner. She declined a colonoscopy at 50, and it wasn’t until she was 59 before some unpleasant symptoms appeared.

The procedure wasn’t as terrible as she thought, noting that “I was sedated and had one of the best naps of my life.” But when she woke up, it was to news that she had rectal cancer.

“Cancer never comes at a convenient time.”

Petra Pohl

It was Stage 3. According to the National Cancer Institute, Stage 3 rectal cancer has a 65 percent chance for five-year survival. However, after treatment, she was told she had a 20 percent chance of recurrence.

She describes the next phase as a whirlwind. She met with a NorthBay Cancer Center oncologist, surgeon and radiologist and mapped out a strategy. Also during this time, she lost her mother, who passed away on Christmas Day, 2014, about two years after losing her father. “Cancer never comes at a convenient time,” she said.

In the year to come, she experienced chemotherapy, radiation and two surgeries. She credits surgeon Courtney Chambers, M.D., oncologist Jonathan Lopez, M.D. and excellent nurses, including Keni Horiuchi, R.N., with saving her life. “They are all my superheroes and I will always feel grateful to them for their courage, intelligence and willingness to prevent suffering,” said Petra. “It has been a steep learning curve, but it has given me the beautiful gift of appreciating every day.”

Now that she’s back in the swing of life, she’s ready to make a difference. With Dr. Chambers’ encouragement, she joined NorthBay Healthcare’s new Patient Family Advisory Council. Now she has a chance to share her experience with future patients.

“Cancer is really isolating,” she said. “People don’t want to talk about it. They seem to think it’s contagious. Or they feel sorry for you. But it’s not like that at all. It’s more like a chronic disease. You’re not feeling great, but you’re still living. And I wanted to live a full life.”

As a volunteer with “Fight Colorectal Cancer (FCRC),” she has advocated for change in insurance law at the State Capitol and she will participate in the Colon Cancer Alliance “Undy Fun/Run Walk” in Sacramento.

“I don’t like to get in front of groups to speak unless I believe something is really important,” she said. “When I speak about cancer, I have that courage. It’s important people don’t make the same mistake I made.”

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