A map, a blindfold and a finger point determined where Gwen Mahdi would settle down for her next adventure. Gwen, who loves to travel, lost her mother in 2011. After caring for her for four years, she was ready for a change of scenery, which brought her and her fiancé to Houston.
As they settled in, Gwen found Harris Health’s Acres Home Health Center, which became her medical home. In 2015, a routine appointment set her on an unexpected journey.
As part of her yearly physical, her doctor screened her for colon cancer.
“I didn’t have any symptoms, so I wasn’t concerned,” she says.
Later that day Gwen received a phone call where staff told her they saw spots that concerned them and additional testing was needed. A CT scan was ordered and days later she received the news—stage 4 colon cancer.
“I was overwhelmed,” she recalls. “But this is the journey I was dealt and I knew I was going to face this head on.”
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in men and women in the United States and is most often found in people who are 50 or older. According to the National Cancer Institute, African-Americans are more likely to develop colorectal cancer at younger ages and at more advanced stages when diagnosed.
The next week Gwen met with her oncology team and was encouraged by Dr. Alyssa Rieber, chief, Oncology, LBJ Hospital and chair, General Oncology, MD Anderson Cancer Center.
“I still remember what she told me, ‘First, we’re going to pray for understanding; second, we’re going to keep our faith; and third, we’re going to trust God,’” Gwen recalls. As a woman of faith, she relished in Alyssa’s optimism.As the weight of the circumstances hit, Gwen started to cry. Alyssa told her, “You can cry now, but when you’re finished, we’re going to do what we have to do to get you through this.”
With the tears behind her, Gwen faced her diagnosis with a positive outlook. Her treatment included surgery to remove the tumor, followed by chemotherapy.
Through it all, she developed special bonds with her cancer care team.
“Dr. Rieber is an encourager and Dr. [Ruth] Sacks [fellow, MD Anderson Cancer Center] is a hugger—she gives great hugs,” she says. “All of them, along with the nurses, are so uplifting and compassionate.”
At one point Gwen received great news that her cancer was in remission, but it returned a short time later.
“Just a bump in the road,” Gwen says. “I’m still fighting.”
A second surgery in 2018 and additional chemotherapy was needed.
After surgery and an 11-day hospital stay, Gwen’s emotions varied. One day she her doctors laughing when she asked them how she could go the beach with all the scars on her abdomen. Days later, curious as to what side effects she may have after surgery, she turned to Google, much to her doctor’s chagrin.
“I was depressed,” she recalls. “My doctor saw my change in attitude and I told him what I did. He said, ‘Gwen, Google is manmade. We’re going to take care of you.’”
Today, Gwen receives chemotherapy every two weeks and her cancer is currently between stage 2 and 3. Her charismatic spirit keeps her and her cancer care team smiling.
Gwen encourages others to get screened.
“I don’t have a family history of colon cancer, yet here I am,” she says. “If a doctor tells you to get screened—you don’t ask why, just do it. The Lord is bringing me through this with the help of my doctors and nurses.”