“It’s true that it’s like a whirlwind when you’re told that it’s cancer. Everything’s a blur,” said Trisha Murphy, reflecting on the last few unexpectedly turbulent months. And yet, “I can’t be more thankful. The doctors I had were amazing. They were there for me 24/7. I felt like I had a really strong support system.”
Her odyssey began innocently enough. At her routine physical in February 2015, Trisha had a few questions for her general practitioner, Dr. Aurobindo Chakraborty. “My stools had started to change. They were soft. [I had] a lot of bloating and distention,” Trisha recalled. “It didn’t feel right.”
Suspecting irritable bowl syndrome, Chakraborty sent Trisha to Framingham-based gastroenterologist Dr. Mark Painter, where Heidi Peters, NP—upon learning Trisha had seen blood in her stools a few times within the past year—ordered a colonoscopy.
“That’s when they found the tumor,” said Trisha. “When I got the news that it was cancer, it was probably the most terrifying thing I’d ever heard in my entire life.”
Assembling the team
Trisha’s doctors instantly synchronized. Chakraborty referred her to nearby oncologist Dr. Kala Seetharaman, while Painter referred Trisha to Dr. James Yoo, Tufts Medical Center’s Chief of Colon and Rectal Surgery. “All of the doctors coordinated and remained informed about my care and treatment,” said Trisha. “They were all on the same page.”
Her initial impression at Yoo’s office set the tone for her entire Tufts MC experience. Medical Assistant Cathy Hughes “was the first face I saw. She was so compassionate, and she listened, and got us laughing, and got us to relax. The exam you have to go through is not fun,” remembered Trisha. “She stayed there and held my hand.”
Dr. Yoo further calmed Trisha’s and her husband’s nerves. “He talked to me at a level I could understand…from his heart. He took his time,” detailing his recommended next steps, she said. “He really cared.”
To determine the best course of action, Yoo explained, “We needed to stage her cancer with a CT scan of the chest, abdomen, and pelvis along with an endorectal ultrasound.”
“Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US,” Yoo continued. “If diagnosed and treated early, the prognosis is very good. That is why screening programs are so important.”
Trisha’s diagnostics determined “her cancer was staged as uT2N0 (Stage 1),” Yoo said, explaining the “u” identifies the initial ultrasound-measured estimate. “Her workup suggested that this was a local cancer that could be treated with surgery, without the need for chemotherapy or radiation. When indicated, surgery offers the best chance for cure.”
Consequently, less than three weeks later, “Trisha underwent a laparoscopic-assisted low anterior resection (LAR)—the cancer and all draining lymph nodes were removed,” said Yoo of the 2-hour operation he performed with a team of OR nurses, surgical residents, and an anesthesiologist.
Trisha remained inpatient for six days post-op. “It was absolutely unbelievable, the care I got at Tufts,” she marveled, praising everyone from the housekeeper (“Martha—I loved her,”) to “my nurse, Mary Beth…all of them… They’re the best. I’m almost 50—I’ve been to different facilities—they were amazing.”
Darkest clouds, brightest linings
“I’ve never felt so much love and so much support—not only from my doctors, but from my friends and my family…everyone I work with,” Trisha continued. “Everybody came from everywhere to see me.”
Trisha’s family was still visiting when Dr. Yoo called with the results of the post-op biopsy. “A total of 18 lymph nodes were examined and no cancer was found in any of them,” he said. “Final cancer staging is only determined after the cancer and lymph nodes have been [removed and] evaluated under a microscope,” and on final pathology, Trisha remained at Stage 1, T2N0.
“Cancer stage, along with other factors, helps us to determine whether we would consider additional treatment like radiation or chemotherapy,” Yoo continued. “Luckily, her cancer was diagnosed early. Based on the staging, she did not require additional treatment.”
“That’s the best news you can hear,” said Trisha. “We all started crying.” Following five weeks of post-op recovery at home, Trisha began easing back into her full-time regimen as an oral surgeon’s assistant.
Today, her prognosis is great. “The surgery is considered curative,” said Yoo, “but she still needs to undergo regular surveillance to make sure that the cancer does not return.” Trisha now sees her doctors every four months with scans as needed. Provided everything remains clean, after two years, time between appointments will extend.
Looking back, Trisha has no regrets. “I’m glad I made the choices that I made. I really am so grateful I met Dr. Yoo,” she said. “He’s phenomenal. If I had to it all over again, I would go back to him. He made you feel like you were part of his family. I highly recommend him to anyone.”