At the age of 38, Erica Holmes Kremitzki never imagined that she could have colorectal cancer. And as a busy mother of two daughters and a second grade school teacher, she had little time to pay attention to the symptoms that had been bothering her for some time.
“It started as lower back pain,” Erica said, explaining that she felt as if she had broken her tailbone. Because the pain was severe at times, she had an MRI which revealed a bulging disk. Later, she started seeing bright red blood in her stools. She attributed the blood to hemorrhoids and used over-the-counter medication to treat it, but the bleeding didn't stop.
Nearly two years passed before her local doctor referred her to a gastroenterologist who gave her the devastating diagnosis in February 2014. It was colorectal cancer – and the bad news didn’t stop there. Erica faced a stage IV diagnosis because the cancer had spread to her lungs.
“It’s an overwhelming thing to hear, devastating at first, and at my age, you kind of feel like your world is crashing down,” Erica said, especially after learning that she would need an ostomy to create an alternate way for her body to remove waste. “I didn’t even know was an ostomy was at the time,” she said.
After the initial tears, the vibrant Tuscola woman made a commitment to fight the disease with a joyful and positive spirit, taking cues from one of her former second-grade students who was always smiling despite his cancer diagnosis. “I wanted to fight with the spirit of a child and still live,” she said. She is currently celebrating a clear CT scan after enduring a tumultuous year of intensive chemotherapy treatments both before and after having two major surgeries to remove tumors in her rectum and lungs. To say that the past year was grueling is an understatement. Erica felt like a tornado was spiraling through her life.
Thankful to have her family by her side every step of the way as doctors sought a cure, “we have moved mountains in a year,” Erica said, still hesitant to celebrate the good news she learned in late January. “It was a big moment to have fought so hard all year to get that report so I’m very grateful to my doctors,” she said. “I’m thrilled to know for at least three months I can go do things and be present in my daughters’ lives. I don’t have to have my sister or my mother-in-law fill in for mommy.” She becomes emotional when she talks about her girls. “As a mom you have to feel like you’ve done everything within your power to fight,” she said.
While her journey is not over, Erica is turning her focus toward becoming an advocate for colorectal cancer preventive screening and generating greater awareness. She urges people to take advantage of a free screening offered by Sarah Bush Lincoln. A limited number of free Hemosure colon cancer screens are available on a first-come first-served basis at the following times/locations: 10 am to 1 pm, Thursday, March 12, at Rural King, Mattoon; 10 am to 1 pm, Friday, March 13, at Rural King, Charleston; 2 to 5 pm, Friday, March 13, at Rural King, Effingham. This easy-to-do free screen is non-invasive and has a 97 percent accuracy rate.
“It’s a much simpler way to get checked and have the mindset that you’re healthy and have nothing to worry about than the route that I’ve had to take,” Erica said. Colorectal cancer is one of the easiest cancers to survive if caught early. Sadly, it often gets to the advanced stages because some people have no symptoms or their symptoms resemble other conditions. Erica was fit and healthy and there was no family history of the disease. Doctors say hers was a “lightening strike” case because she didn’t fit the typical profile.
Erica is especially passionate about raising awareness amongst the younger generation because the number of younger people being diagnosed is on the rise. “Age, number one, is something that people should ignore,” she said. “If something doesn’t seem right, listen to your body and explain your symptoms to your doctor. Trust your intuition and don’t settle for an easy explanation.”
Erica’s story has touched many people. The entire community of Tuscola, along with her coworkers, students and parents from Riddle Elementary School in Mattoon where she taught, have rallied around Team Kika. It all started after a family friend ordered some bracelets, embracing her childhood nickname, to help support her fight. It wasn’t long before they were ordering thousands of bracelets and it has created an avalanche of love and support for which she is grateful.
Her story spread even further when another friend set up a Team Kika Facebook page, creating a healing forum where many have offered heartfelt messages that provide her with strength. “Social media has been a gift,” she said. “It’s a very healing way for me to express my feelings and I’ve just been very honest on it and shared my fears, my successes, my joys.” Posting funny dance videos with her daughters before each chemo treatment also provided a fun way to keep everyone’s spirits up, she added.
“I can’t even express the gratitude or how overwhelming it is to know so many people care and took the time to put me on their prayer list, share their stories and do everything within their power to make this more manageable for my family. I cannot ever repay the people who have done all these things for me, but I’m going to try to do it with one small act of kindness at a time.”
For more information about colorectal screening kits, call Carrol Gottfriedt, SBL Gastroenterology Clinic, at (217) 258-4155 or go to www.sarahbush.org.