Mary Hannon celebrated her 40th birthday in late 2020.

Among the notable presents? She got to take her 5-year-old son to his first day of kindergarten.

It’s a precious milestone in itself, made all the more precious because she survived rectal cancer.

When Hannon first saw blood in her stool a few years ago, she did what a lot of young people might do—she attributed it to hemorrhoids or irritable bowel syndrome.

And at first, a fecal test uncovered nothing concerning.

But six months later, after more blood appeared, her doctor ordered a colonoscopy.

When Hannon awoke from the procedure, she was surprised to find colorectal surgeon Nadav Dujovny, MD, from the Spectrum Health Colorectal Cancer Multispecialty Clinic in her room.

Dr. Dujovny suspected cancer. He wanted to schedule more tests and begin treatment right away.

“He spared no time,” Hannon said. “I appreciated that. It allowed me to get my head around what the diagnosis was going to be.”

Shortly after her official diagnosis of stage IIIB rectal cancer, Hannon met with a multi-specialty care team from the Spectrum Health Lemmon-Holton Cancer Pavilion to discuss the best treatment plan.

They would begin with total neoadjuvant therapy, which uses chemotherapy and chemo-radiation to destroy the cancer cells and shrink the tumor. Surgery would follow.

‘We are treating a fly with a sledge hammer,” said one of the doctors on her surgical team. “You have a lot of life to live.’”

Hannon didn’t hesitate.

“If this course of therapy allows me my life and a chance to watch my boys grow up and grow old with (husband) Brian, I am all in.”

‘Tough stuff’

Given her family history, Hannon felt little surprise she’d developed cancer.

She learned how to cope by copying her mother, who survived a brutal battle with breast cancer.

“She faced her diagnosis and treatment with determination and a positive attitude,” Hannon said. “As I faced my own diagnosis and treatment, I channeled that same energy. It was a constant reminder: I am made of tough stuff and I can do this.”

Hannon shared her journey on a blog, which she named after a line borrowed from E.E. Cummings, “Five hopes for one fear.”

“I found being open about my illness helped me to get so much support, which we really needed,” she said.

She also found moral support and practical tips on Colontown, an online community of thousands of people with colorectal cancer.

She weathered ups and downs in her battle, including a severe allergic reaction to one of the chemotherapy medications. Still, she’s the type who prefers to focus on the positives.

“It was hard, but it was manageable,” she said.

One of the bright spots? Relationships she formed with other cancer patients while receiving chemotherapy, including the late Chelsea Boet, MD, who she described as her “cancer whisperer.”

She also cherished the support from coworkers who provided treats and surprises to brighten her day.

Her favorite? The day she arrived at work to find all of her coworkers wearing purple shirts that read, “Nobody puts Mary in a corner.”

After surgery to remove most of her rectum, part of her colon and lymph nodes in her pelvis, she received a temporary ileostomy.

Hannon didn’t let it get her down.

“Of course, my boys just loved the idea of me having a ‘poop bag’ attached to my body,” she said. “So much potty language and humor.”

Eventually Hannon had surgery to reverse her ileostomy, but this came with its own temporary challenges.

Overcoming adversity

Once in remission, Hannon asked one of her oncologists, Sreenivasa Chandana, MD, about a new personalized blood monitoring test called a circulating-tumor DNA test, or ctDNA.

The test, which she learned about on Colontown, could help determine if the cancer had returned.

She felt greatly relieved when the doctor allowed her to have the test done.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had recently granted approval for that type of DNA test for monitoring and early detection of cancer recurrence. He is now using it for several patients with colorectal cancer.

“She always had a positive attitude to overcome any adversity,” Dr. Chandana said. “She never had a bad moment or complained.”

In fact, he considered Hannon a key part of her own care team.

How did she come through with such a positive mindset?

“I think it’s partly how I am wired, how I was raised and the support I have received,” Hannon said. “And some days haven’t been all smiles. But attitude is something I can control in a world full of many things I can’t.”

Throughout her journey, she has relished her ongoing relationship with Spectrum Health nurse navigator Carrie Gillette, who joined her for appointments and acted as a liaison. Gillette continues to link her with resources for physical and emotional support.

“So many people came to help me and were there for me,” Hannon said. “It made me more mindful of how I can be present for other people in their struggles. You’re never more aware of how much that means until you are the recipient of it.”

Yet Hannon acknowledges cancer has changed her.

“Since December, I have been on an impossible quest to find the ‘old me,'” she wrote in her blog. “Until recently it didn’t dawn on me that I would never find her. I am surer today of who I am and what I am capable of. I am healthier. I am stronger. I am learning how to use my best voice. My faith is deeper, albeit more complex. I am grateful to be alive. I am exploring the new me.”