Living Well with Colorectal Cancer: Valerie’s Palliative Care Story

Valerie Wallace is a young, vibrant, upbeat mother of three and wife to a husband she adores. So when she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2013, she was determined to fight. She underwent colon surgery and a round of chemotherapy.

But after finding out her cancer had spread to her liver, she was told by her gastrointestinal oncologist that she was not a good candidate for liver surgery.

“The side effects were so much worse than all of the sessions before, having been injured and sick,” Valerie said. “At that point, he said that he was changing his opinion about my case, that he did not know if I was still in as high of a treatable category as he thought I had been, and that he and my liver surgeon had talked and they were not comfortable going through with the liver surgery.”

Frustrated, confused, and suffering from debilitating symptoms from both her cancer and its treatment, Valerie was thrown for a loop. Her central goal became getting well enough to qualify for the surgery so she could get well for her family.

“I was the most calm of anyone when it came to my husband, my mom,” she recalled. “My attitude was like, ‘Okay. I’ve got cancer. Tell me what I’ve gotta do because we’ve got to do to beat this thing.’”

That’s when Valerie turned to palliative care. Palliative care is specialized medical care for people with serious illnesses. It focuses on providing relief from the symptoms, pain and stress of a serious illness. The goal is to improve the quality of life of both the patient and the family.

Valerie sat down with her palliative care team to discuss her goals of care, including her strong desire to have liver surgery. “I told my palliative care doctor, that wasn’t acceptable,” Valerie explained. “You know, I’m young. I have young children. I have a husband that I love, that I don’t want to leave and not treating this cancer wasn’t an option for me. We had to figure out a way to keep Dr. Posey satisfied with, you know, with me condition and my ability to tolerate treatment.”

Valerie felt an immediate connection to her palliative care physician, Dr. Elizabeth Cavale. “I knew right away that she would be able to help me. It was so nice to hear a doctor that understood that it was okay to still be feeling the kind of side effects that I was feeling.” Valerie felt heard and supported, and she really appreciated that Dr. Cavale made sure to center Valerie’s wants and needs in her care.

Not only that, but Dr. Cavale and the rest of the palliative care team helped coordinate her care with her other doctors and provided an additional layer of support on which Valerie came to rely.

“The palliative care is a new area of medicine that is offered in addition to my cancer treatment,” Valerie explained. “It was a way of having one doctor that can organize a team of services for me that goes alongside my cancer treatment to make quality of life and quality of treatment better.”

In the end, her palliative care team understood Valerie’s central goal—to have surgery—and centered that in her care.

“I wanted to improve my health and my strength, so I could get back to my treatment plan and have the liver surgery to remove the tumors from my liver, and palliative care helped me to get back on track with my strength and my health to where he once again would consider treatment and surgery. That was huge for me.”

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