Her cancer diagnosis shook her soul. Now, her book helps others.

Getting sick was so rare for Laura Shook that she didn’t even have a primary care doctor.

She had no family history of cancer. And, at only 46,she assumed she was too young to worry — or get a regular colonoscopy. The only cases of colorectal cancer Shook knew about were that of the late actress Farah Fawcett’s and a congregant at Community of Faith in Cypress, the church she co-pastors with her husband, Mark.

When she noticed rectal bleeding, cancer was the last thing on her mind. Instead, the Cypress resident assumed it was a hemorrhoid.

“Then it kept happening,” Shook said.

Eventually, she ended up at a gastroenterologist’s office.

“Of course, I was nervous,” Shook said. “She told me pretty quickly, let’s schedule a colonoscopy.”

Still, her doctor assured her that the most likely cause was an internal hemorrhoid or polyps.

Shook debated having the test at all. She was too busy, planning a trip to Africa with her church. And she wanted to spend as much time as possible with her oldest daughter, Ashley, who was about to graduate from high school.

Finally, she decided to go for the colonoscopy. And looking back, she knows it was the right choice.

“Now it’s been 12 years, and it’s still hard to believe,” she said.

She was in a daze from the sedation after the procedure, when her doctor told her, “You have a tumor. You have cancer.”

Mark asked the doctor to repeat the news four times. Neither he nor Laura could comprehend it.

“It just wasn’t something we expected at all,” she said. “It was like I was in ‘The Twilight Zone.’”

Everyone — no matter what age — is at risk

As soon as Shook awoke completely, she was sent in for a CT scan, which revealed that the cancer had not spread to any other organs.

“It was a huge relief,” she recalled. “We started looking for the best doctors and surgeons.”

Then, Shook found Dr. Joseph R. Cali, colorectal surgeon with UT Physicians and Memorial Hermann.

“Dr. Cali’s name kept coming up,” Shook said. “People were saying that he’s the best colon surgeon around.”

She made an appointment and met with the surgeon.

“That started the process,” Shook said.

Cali said that Shook’s story is common.

“Rectal cancer can present just like hemorrhoids,” he explained. And 70 percent of colorectal cancer patients have no family history of the disease.

“Everyone is at risk,” he said. “If you have any symptoms, you should go get them evaluated — without a doubt.”

The precursor to colorectal cancer is a polyp, a small tissue growth in the colon. The only way to find polyps is with a colonoscopy, Cali explained.

“We depend on the clinical stage of the cancer to determine which sequence of treatment is needed,” he said.

That process depends on imaging, and Cali sent Shook to the Texas Medical Center for an internal ultrasound.

While paying her bill, she overhead the doctor on the phone, reporting the results to Cali.

“I heard him saying, ‘It was in three lymph nodes,’” Shook recalled. “And I almost lost it.”

Her knees grew weak.

“Am I going to be able to walk out of here?” she wondered.

Treating colorectal cancer

Cali called her later in the afternoon to explain that the tumor had also broken through the wall of her rectum and moved into the surrounding tissue.

He diagnosed her with Stage 3 colorectal cancer, which meant chemotherapy and radiation would be part of her treatment.

Shook first had oral chemotherapy and radiation for six weeks to reduce the size of the tumor.

“It was very painful,” she recalled. “It felt like I was burning on the inside, which I guess, is because you are.”

Then, her surgery was scheduled for August 2009. They removed about 18 inches of her colon, part of her rectum and the affected lymph nodes.

Shook was placed on a temporary ileostomy bag. She spent a week recovering in the hospital and then went home with a port installed in her chest for intravenous chemotherapy.

“I started the next day,” she said. After six treatments, the ileostomy bag was removed in April 2010.

At first, she went for monthly checkups. Then the visits became less frequent, and every three months turned into twice a year. By 2014, the visits were annual.

On her most recent check-in, where she learned she is still cancer-free, she was told she could wait another two years before returning.

Cali has been impressed with his patient’s progress.

“She’s a very strong lady,” he said.

Sharing her story

Shook kept a blog to document her cancer journey. As a pastor, writing is a mainstay in her life. She’s often recording lessons from scripture or at her desk preparing sermons.

With cancer, writing helped her process what was happening.

“It was healing for me,” she said.

The blog started as a way to keep her three children updated. Before long, friends, family and church members were following as well.

“It seemed easier than having to call or email,” Shook said. “I would just go to this one spot and write.”

And that’s all she ever thought her blog would be — an online journal used to keep everyone who cared up to speed.

That is, until 2013, when Shook was eating breakfast in a café in Paris, with Mark, their son, David, and his wife, Syd.

David was about to release a book, and his publisher, Todd Swift, owner of Eyewear Publishing, joined them.

In their conversation, Swift mentioned he was looking for books from a Christian perspective.

“David was like, ‘Well my mom has a book,’” Shook recalled.

She was reluctant to discuss the blog, even though Swift was more than interested. She told him to read it first and then the two could talk.

“By the time we flew home from England, he sent a contract,” Shook said. “He wanted to publish it.”

She went back to the blog and began editing, removing text or adding more detail as needed. The book, “Forever Hope: Choosing Life Through Cancer and Recovery,” was published in 2014.

In its pages, Shook described how faith carried her through diagnosis and treatment, the way praise music, scripture and prayer helped her.

“I clung to faith,” she said. “And our church just rallied around us. We had so many people praying.”

Usually, Shook was the one to care for everyone — as mother, wife and pastor.

“All of the sudden, the roles were reversed,” she said. “I had to humble myself and let people take care of me. And they did.”

Finding hope

Guidelines changed for colonoscopies in 2018, lowering the recommended age for routine screenings from 50 to 45.

“That made me happy,” Shook said. “It needs to be earlier, because that’s when it’s happening.”

She has become an advocate — pushing people to get the procedure and sharing which symptoms should be alarming. Most of all, Shook advises that individuals be proactive when it comes to their health.

“Know your own system and you habits,” she said. “If there’s a change, be aware. Don’t just write it off. If something doesn’t feel right, keep pushing and keep looking. Don’t wait.”

Shook also said that treatments have changed since she was diagnosed.

“They’re learning new things every day,” she explained. “And there’s hope.”

Cali agreed. For instance, Shook underwent open surgery.

“Now, we can do it robotically,” he said. “It’s minimally invasive, and people are in the hospital for less time.”

Everyone should get their colonoscopies at age 45, Cali added.

“It’s a simple procedure,” he said.

And if symptoms are present, such as bleeding or changes in bowel habit, schedule an appointment sooner.

“Young people can get colorectal cancer,” Cali said.

In fact, the number of people younger than 50 who are diagnosed has nearly doubled.

“It’s increased in frequency,” Cali said.

Shook hopes her book will help others realize the importance of regular screening.

“That’s really why I did it — to encourage someone else,” she said.

As she writes in her memoir, “I hope through the telling of my very personal, detailed journey, you will see the goodness of God … I pray my story will encourage you along the way and bring you hope in the chaos. You can get through this too.”

Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.

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