Onalaska woman shares fight with colorectal cancer in hopes of warning others

Colorectal cancer is the second most deadly form of the disease behind lung cancer.

And while overall, the number of deaths from rectal cancer is going down, that’s not the case for the under 50 population.

Erin Schmitt is a busy mom of two Holmen middle-school boys.

Between all of their activities, and her full-time job as a nurse recruiter at Gundersen Health System, life is moving quickly.

But earlier this year, life took a turn in a different direction.

“I never in my life thought that I would have cancer,” said Erin. “My thoughts were, I’m too young, I’m healthy, I exercise, I eat right, I feel like I take really good care of myself.”

Erin’s husband Lee said, “Very, very difficult. It’s hard to see her tired, it’s hard to see her struggle and she’s a young woman. She shouldn’t have to be going through this.”

Erin is just 44 years old. Rectal cancer, even for this registered nurse by trade, wasn’t anywhere on the radar.

“None of the risk factors for colon cancer which are obesity, smoking, Type 2 diabetes, being over 50,” said Erin.

“What’s interesting, when we look at rectal cancer, over the past couple of decades, this is actually been rising in the under 50 population which is somewhat surprising because we don’t have good answers for this,” said Gundersen Health System Oncologist Dr. Kurt Oettel.

Looking back now, Erin says she started having symptoms 18 months to two years before her diagnosis. “I started to notice some subtle changes in my bowel habits which I really thought were part of eating a healthy diet. I did have some blood in my stool, occasionally, very small amounts, nothing I felt was alarming. I also started to notice some pressure in my abdominal area.”

Doctors say Erin’s case and many others highlight the importance of talking with your primary care physician about any changes in your health.

Dr. Oettel says, “Saying, hey, I’ve had some symptoms, it’s unusual for me. It’s easy to do that screening test and investigate.”

“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come forward is because I think to make a doctor’s appointment and say ‘I think there might be something wrong with my rectum,’ that was not an easy phone call, even for me to make as a nurse.”

By the time they caught it, Erin’s cancer was already stage 3. They removed a small tumor, 18 inches of her colon, and 33 lymph nodes, six of which had cancer. She’s already finished 28 treatments of radiation and is now in the middle of 6 months of chemotherapy.

“When I found out the cancer was advanced, in my case, of course you think about dying. I thought about my children, them growing up without a mom, potentially. I mean, I certainly hope that doesn’t happen.”

Since the shock of the diagnosis, Erin has tried to reframe her thinking, taking a positive approach to a difficult situation.

“Not thinking about the end point, not thinking about dying honestly, it’s thinking about living and fighting this and thinking about things you want to do down the road that you always thought you would do, places you want to see with your family, seeing my kids grow up, graduate from high school, go to college, get married, be a grandparent, focusing on those things.”

And she’s found out, she’s not alone in her fight. Erin recently learned the entrepreneurship class at Holmen High School is dedicating the proceeds from its holiday store to her battle.

“When we found out she had cancer, we wanted to help her. She’s in our community and we really appreciate everything she does for her kids so we really wanted to focus on supporting someone local,” said Holmen student Maddy Arendt.

“I know it means a lot to her, obviously she’s going through a hard time, we’d like to help her out as much as we can,” said Holmen student Emma Keenan.

“I don’t know who nominated me to have that honor, but I’m so grateful because it will enable me to help pay off some medical bills but also as I look at my upcoming surgery, I’ll need some time off I’ve used all of my vacation time.”

“To see people take time out of their days for rides for the kids or for meals, or for the money that’s generated through support, it’s hard because I don’t know how I’ll ever repay it,” said Lee.

Erin knows the road ahead won’t be easy. “It said the 5 year survival rate is 65% and having even seen that, it kind of crushes me when I see that number. I guess I feel mine’s going to be better than that. 5 years, I won’t even be 50 yet.”

But regardless what the numbers say, this is one fight Erin is out to win.

Lee says, “She’s a very smart woman, educated, so she’s going to find the best possible way to fix herself.”

“I’m definitely a fighter. I have so much to live for, I have so many things to look forward to.”

One other thing to note about Colorectal Cancer in those under 50, Doctor Oettel says it’s affecting white people the most and it also seems to be clustered in higher socio-economic areas.

You can help support Erin’s fight by visiting the Holmen High School Holiday store. It’s still open Thursday, Dec. 12 and Friday, Dec. 13 from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m.

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