Right before her 47th birthday, Michele Longabaugh, a Wichita wife, mother and registered nurse, received some devastating news. The blood on her toilet paper wasn’t from the hemorrhoids she had dealt with for years, and her back pain wasn’t because of her ongoing bout with sciatica.
Michele had stage 4 anal cancer that had metastasized to the base of her spine, even though she didn’t have any of the common risk factors for the disease: being HIV- or HPV-positive, a woman over age 65, or a smoker.
And because her cancer was so advanced, for Michele there would be no cure, her oncologist told her — only treatment that at best might give her three more years to live.
“So technically, I expired in February 2013. I'm like bad milk — you probably don’t want to open me,” says Michele, with a laugh.
It’s that sense of humor that helped her get through the grueling initial round of treatment and the subsequent treatments when her cancer reappeared, first in her lungs and then near her heart.
Michele says she feels fortunate to have been able to receive nearly all of the care she needed at Via Christi Hospital St. Francis, where she worked for 13 years before leaving to start her own medical device business.
"The care was second-to-none," says Michele, who's now looking forward to celebrating her fifth “cancer-versary” in February with her husband of 27 years, Jerry, and their three grown children. "They put me first and it was always all about me, not them. I was overwhelmed by everyone's compassion and dedication.
"You could feel the empathy when anyone came in my room."
A new bucket list
From the time of her diagnosis, Michele has been checking things off her personal bucket list. But with her most recent PET scan showing no sign of cancer activity, she now has a few new goals.
First, she wants to help others living with cancer, which she’s doing through her support for the Wichita cancer support group, Victory in the Valley.
Second, she wants to help others with lower gastrointestinal cancers, which she’s doing through her writing, blogging and mentoring of other colon, rectal and anal cancer survivors.
And third, she wants to help people nationwide recognize the signs and symptoms of colon, rectal and anal cancer and spur them to action.
Toward that end, Michele’s developing a website, everybodylooks.com, and is lobbying manufacturers to put a blue ribbon with a red checkmark on every roll of toilet paper they produce.
Her message is straightforward: Everyone uses toilet paper daily, everyone looks to ensure they’ve gotten a clean wipe and everyone notices changes in their stools — a look that could save their life.
“I knew in my heart that something was wrong, but it was embarrassing,” says Michele. “I want people to know what to look for, to feel empowered to get past the awkwardness, and to call their doctor.”
In fact, it's become her purpose.
"I always thought 'Why me?' and now I think, 'Why not me?' My cancer has given me new understanding of my purpose and the meaning of my life."